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The story of the restaurateur's path is oftentimes not straightforward. For the owners of Morso Me, couple Maria Strazzanti and Mario Giorgio, alongside their not-so silent partner Mignonne Spiegelman, it’s been anything but a linear, smooth road. To understand the perseverance it’s taken Maria and Mario to survive the odyssey we call the “restaurant industry”, we have to go back to 2012 and a little take-out spot on King West called Kings Table.
While working in the kitchen of another restaurant, her partner Mario, who was working in IT at the time, brought up starting their own place. “I was tired of IT,” Mario said. Maria, the chef of the pair, had always had the dream of owning her food spot. Kings Table, a take-out Italian sandwich, pasta and salad shop was the result. As fate would have it, a mid-size restaurant next door was closing down, and the couple were able to leverage their amicable relationship with the past owner into a lease with his landlord for their own sit-down restaurant. It already had a liquor license, another hurdle they wouldn’t need to overcome.
So began Act II. Named “Luce” (Italian for “Light”) after their chihuahua, the restaurant had the immediate support of locals in the surrounding King West community.
“Although it had the support of the locals, high rent became a factor in its undoing,” Maria explained, looking back on the final three years they felt like they were working for the landlord. “With a staff of seven to eight people and a hefty rent increase on the horizon, we decided it was better to shut down the restaurant than attempt to continue making the higher rent work.”
Aside from being local business owners, the couple also lives in the community they serve. The couple can often be found walking their dog through the neighbourhood when they’re not in the restaurant. It was on one of these walks where Maria spotted the property, about a block away from Luce, that would later become Morso Me.
“I looked through the window of this storefront walk-up out of curiosity,” said Maria. “I spoke to a friend who always talked about wanting to get into the restaurant industry, and although I warned her about the challenges of making one work, she still wanted to go ahead with the business.”
Luce closed in May of 2016. Maria spoke to the landlord of Morso Me in June of 2016. “We named it Morso Me because Morso means bite in Italian,” Maria explained. “So translated it meant 'bite me', which we thought was a funny play on words.” It was a slow start as opposed to a fast bang, but they did it. However, by the end of 2017, her friend and business partner decided to part ways with the restaurant. “She lived in Peterborough at the time with a child and the winter travel became an issue for her,” said Maria.
Mario joined Maria in the kitchen as the in-house baker in 2018, and if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to bite down into one of Morso Me’s succulent chicken or veal parmigiana, you know whom to thank for the freshly baked bread with the crusty exterior giving way to a buttery soft interior.
“I enjoy the challenges that come with being in the food business,” Mario said. “I’ve always wanted to be in the restaurant business because I grew up in it. I made my first espresso at 5 years old standing on a wooden coke box and learned everything about cooking from my parents, that’s where my background in food comes from.”
Mario, who points out he’s worked in kitchens before this, ended up going into IT. “I did well in it but didn’t like the corporate structure of that world,” he said. “I make the bread fresh daily. Every day I’m up at 5 a.m. and on the job by 5:30 a.m. to do everything necessary.”
Her new business partner, Mignonne, came on the scene to help out with marketing. “I have a degree in psychology, have worked in high fashion retail, real estate and owned a business that has been sold to other companies,” said Mignonne of her business experience.
Then, in 2019, COVID-19 struck. Cue Act III.
“Morso Me lost money because most of our office catering disappeared,” said Maria. “We survived off local walk-ins and were able to pay our employees through the federal loan offered to businesses.”
Even though their business model had always been based on take-out, there was still a series of pivots and adjustments. “There was money missing over time because delivery apps were taking 30 per cent premiums and our walk-in traffic was reduced,” said Mignonne.
“Take-out window, plexiglass take-out window for service, sanitizer here and there, the mask issue in a hot kitchen,” said Maria of some of the necessary changes. “The window was a big expense because we had to take out the old window to put in the new window, which the City of Toronto refused to pay for because they didn’t view it as a necessity.” The window, however, gave more Covid-averse customers a sense of security that allowed them to order and pick up from the street and was integral to their survival.
As a testament to the loyalty their customers have for the neighbourhood spot, as soon as some of the lockdowns restrictions loosened, their people came back. “We were financially hit but the loyalty that our customers showed to us was pretty remarkable,” Mignonne gushed. “There’s nothing like people coming in now and saying we’re so happy you’re still here, which speaks volumes about the love for Maria.”
Their latest venture, Cannoli Crunch, was born out of Maria’s desire to incorporate her childhood love for the crispy, sweet Italian pastry into her business. “It came to me as I was walking home from the restaurant one night and thinking about what I wanted to do when lockdowns were over,” she said.
Mignonne loved the Cannoli Crunch idea. “Genius idea. I’m the numbers person so I started market research, taste testing and checking for comparable products across the world,” said Mignonne. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves by introducing exotic and savoury flavours that nobody anywhere in the world is doing, which includes, among other things, our signature jelly-filled cannolis.”
The aforementioned cannolis are reminiscent of your favourite jelly-filled donut, piped into the centre of lush ricotta cream like a decadent surprise.
Morso Me doesn’t use gas stoves or deep fryers, preferring instead to use electricity and induction.
“I was thinking about was how we could stay carbon neutral and eliminate unnecessary dangers,” said Mario. “We can make traditional Italian food completely without the use of fossil fuels.”
They also work to employ youth.
“We work with YES employment agency who will pay our employees for the first three months, then I take it from there,” explained Maria, who also donates one per cent of profits, food and time to Covenant House.
When asked why they care so much about community, Mignonne sums up the relationship perfectly.
“The community has been supportive of us through a lot and we want to support the community.”