You’ve seen his vibrant personality shine on screen in his various cooking shows. You’ve indulged in traditional Italian recipes that leap off the pages of his many cookbooks. Now, coming soon, you’ll get to experience more of David Rocco’s authentic Italian flair at his new wine bar opening in Yorkville, a posh neighborhood in the heart of Toronto, Ontario in Canada.
So why, amid the city’s ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, is Rocco opening up his first restaurant? Xtalks spoke to the celebrity chef to hear more about his vision and what it’s taking to make it come to life.
Fulfilling His Restaurant Itch
It started with a “restaurant itch,” as Rocco put it. With the onset of the pandemic halting his regular travels and pushing plans for a restaurant opening in Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers, he started thinking more locally. What was missing in Toronto, he thought, was an Italian Tapas-style aperitivo cicchetti bar — a void he set out to fill.
On a regular walk home from the office in November, 2020, Rocco passed a retail space formerly occupied by a local café called HÖM Cafe. He soon learned it was a friend’s property that was opportunely up for lease. One hasty showing later, Rocco could already envision how he would transform the space.
“I go, ‘Well, my wife will probably kill me.’ I went home and I said, ‘Hey, there’s that little place, we’ve never been in it, but why don’t we look at it tomorrow?’ And I made an appointment and we saw it and both kind of really loved it… And I think three days later, we signed the lease,” Rocco said.
With the lease signed, Rocco and his team got to work in January of this year, at the height of Ontario’s strict ongoing holiday lockdown orders. That didn’t stop them from working quickly in the hopes of opening the wine bar, aptly named David Rocco Bar Aperitivo, in the summer. Luckily, unlike a lot of other brick-and-mortar businesses, the uncertainty of Ontario’s reopening plan didn’t significantly affect the restaurant’s opening date.
“Our business model wasn’t an indoor dining restaurant. It will be stand-up, it will be grab and go, it will be having a beer or having a glass of wine, some prosecco… But we never went into it with the hopes that we needed to be open by this date to turn a profit or we need this to happen to be successful,” Rocco said.
Even keeping in mind the provincial government’s ambiguity surrounding indoor dining, Rocco didn’t have to compromise on the wine bar’s original vision. With a unique business model and a partnership with CaféTO, a program that aims to help restaurants and bars maximize space for outdoor dining areas, David Rocco Bar Aperitivo is likely to reinvigorate Yorkville’s vibrant, elegant culture.
Italian Food, Wine and Atmosphere
“Our concept isn’t about dining,” Rocco clarified. “It’s an experience of having your Venetian spreads with your cicchetti or your Aperol or Negroni. And it’s really that moment in the day to kind of just be inspired,” Rocco said.
Italy, or rather the Italian lifestyle, is the ultimate inspiration behind David Rocco Bar Aperitivo. When he was living in Italy, something Rocco looked forward to were the moments in the day where he could have a quick bite and a half a glass of wine on the go. In the era of Zoom meetings and working from home, Rocco longed for that revered mid-day half glass of wine, a feeling he wants his restaurant goers to experience.
Rocco described it as, “that moment in the day to escape for 20 minutes, and then go back to the office and get on a Zoom or get in that meeting and put out that fire. So this is going to be that kind of place that allows you to do that, just like in Italy,” noting that he doesn’t think the city has seen anything like this.
In terms of the menu, guests can expect a slew of small-plate Italian nibbles. The offerings will change daily based on seasonality and pure inspiration. It can be crostini with cream of truffle one day and bite-sized meatballs or eggplant parmigiana another. It’s just enough to “feel good with your prosecco and with your alcohol,” Rocco said.
Getting Back to Dining Out
Since the pandemic’s days are not yet behind us, some people are likely to face anxiety when getting back to dining out. But Rocco believes they should do what makes them feel comfortable and assures the restaurant will follow all safety protocols. He said he thinks the more people get vaccinated and the more the sun comes out, the more people will feel it’s safer to dine out again.
“It’s such a personal thing and I think when people see other people out and about and numbers go down, I think overall, that society as a community, will feel a lot better about getting back to normal,” Rocco added.
When asked to share some words of advice for anyone aspiring to open a restaurant in these uncertain times, Rocco jokingly said, “Yeah. Don’t do it. Don’t be crazy like me. Just don’t do it.”
“No… it is timing in life… timing is everything, and when someone feels ready and when opportunities present themselves, you just have to grab hold of [them].”