Vesuvio Pizzeria rides out rough times
Posted February 15th, 2011 under In the media
Neighbourhood headed in the right direction: restaurateur
There is still room for improvement, but the West Toronto Junction is a far cry from the crime riddled neighbourhood it once was in the mid-1990s, say Piera and Ettore Pugliese, owners of Vesuvio Pizzeria and Spaghetti House, a fixture on Dundas Street West near High Park Avenue since 1957.
“I think we’re doing well, really well,” said Piera, sitting in the dining room of the restaurant on a quiet afternoon recently.
Piera said she is pleased to see so many specialty shops opening up in the Junction.
“We have a gluten-free bakery,” she pointed out, referring to the Junction’s recent addition Bunner’s Bake Shop on Dundas Street West at Quebec Avenue. “I think this is exactly what we need: specialized, interesting and intelligent businesses.”
Once upon a time, the Junction was better than what some of today’s city shopping districts are like, said Piera and her husband, citing Avenue Road as an example.
“It was bustling, it was the place to be,” said Ettore (whom people call Eddie) of the retail strip during Vesuvio’s early years.
Hardware stores like Elliott’s, grocery stores such as A&P and fine dining establishments like The Alps were enticing to the many shoppers who frequented the Junction. New York-style pizza was a novelty when Ettore, his brothers Dominic, Attilio and Corrado and their father Rocco first introduced it to the neighbourhood.
By 1995, when Piera began her work with the Junction Business Improvement Area (BIA), she said the area had slid into a serious decline. The vacancy rate had risen to 17 per cent with as many as 35 storefronts sitting empty.
“We had a lot of crime in the area. Prostitution. There were a lot of problems,” said Piera.
Meanwhile, Vesuvio’s dining room sat empty. Ettore had decided to shut it down after a plebiscite (also known as a referendum) to allow the serving of alcohol failed in 1984. This one, along with two other plebiscites in 1969 and 1973 spearheaded by the Pugliese family had failed. To win, they needed 60 per cent of the vote. According to the West Toronto Junction Historical Society’s publication, ‘The Leader and Recorder,’ a “fiery crusader” by the name of William Temple worked for years to keep the Junction area dry. Editorials appeared in local papers while sermons on temperance were preached.
Not being allowed to serve alcohol was a serious handicap as far as the Puglieses were concerned – as were fellow restaurateurs. That’s why they attempted several times to change the law, but to no avail.
“We got to a point where we were fed up,” he said. “We shut down because of liquor issues.”
Ettore became so incensed as the results of the 1984 vote were announced (the 60 per cent still alluded them) at the pizzeria that he began boarding up the dining room while customers were still eating inside, according to the Leader and Recorder. Declaring every meal on the house, he vowed not another would be served again until it could be enjoyed with a glass of wine.
Although the dining room closed on April 9, 1984, Vesuvio’s popular take-out counter thrived.
“We always had business,” said Ettore.
The restaurant did not fully re-open until 2000 when the entire Junction had been deemed wet, following the successful plebiscite in 1997 and another in 2000. Piera had banded together with Santa Cuda owner of the Flamingo Banquet Hall and Maureen Lynett, whose family owned Lynett Funeral Home, and established the group ‘Working for Equal Treatment’ (W.E.T.) in an effort to overturn the ‘dry’ designation. The women vehemently believed the economic well-being of the Junction was dependent upon the ability to sell and consume alcohol. A vigorous year-long campaign resulted in a wet vote during the Nov. 10, 1997 municipal election.
Since then, the rejuvenation of the Junction has been slow, but steady.
“We haven’t arrived yet,” said Piera, “but I think we’re headed in the right direction. I’d like to see some green grocers with flowers out front and I’d like to see more galleries.”
As for Ettore, he said he wouldn’t mind seeing more fine dining restaurants. He isn’t worried about any competition.
“We don’t fear it. We know what we’re doing,” he said.