You can’t write about the food business in London without Bob DiFruscia’s name coming up. He brought Londoners so many culinary concepts: the roadhouse experience back in 1980, with McGinnis Bar and Restaurant; a favourite sports bar — Oar House; a downtown nightclub — The Barking Frog, and, most recently, he and his brother Dino led the revolution of building growth in Lambeth/Byron with Dolcetto.
Despite all that success, where DiFruscia is most at home is Bertoldi’s Trattoria, named after his mother’s family, as a salute to his Italian heritage. Bertoldi’s is laying out its food philosophy by identifying as a trattoria — which literally means family restaurant. The menu has a strong focus on family-friendly items that are reasonably priced. With an open kitchen and casual wood finishings, Bertoldi’s is a place to relax with comfort food.
Despite his self-acknowledgment of “pushing 70”, DiFruscia still jumps up from the chair during an interview to greet and seat customers, and he displays the vigour more of a restaurateur in his prime than nearing retirement. “I’m thankful for every day,” he says sincerely, while enjoying the ambiance of a quiet afternoon break at Bertoldi’s. “I get to see my grandchildren, kids and I see my customers and I don’t have to work as hard as I used to.”
He credits the contributions of his family, who collectively run Big Night Bars & Restaurants. Brother Dino operates Dolcetto and the remaining McGinnis at Oxford and Wonderland (it used to be a large chain across Ontario and the Maritimes) and his daughter Jessica is the general manager of Bertoldi’s. The Barking Frog was recently sold. But it’s Bertoldi’s where DiFruscia seems most at home and where he has centered his contributions to the company since opening in 2002.
He loves knowing the suppliers personally, including the farmer near Tillsonburg who sells the DiFruscias his entire annual crop. “Peppers and tomatoes are huge for us as we focus on simple, fresh ingredients,” explains DiFruscia. Long-time Chef John Fisher has officially retired from the Bertoldi’s kitchen for a teaching opportunity at the London Training Centre, but he still oversees the menu with DiFruscia as a consultant. These days that menu has a large focus on pizza, which has grown to be a quarter of the restaurant’s sales. The wood/gas pizza oven from Italy is front and centre in the trattoria and can cook a pizza in five minutes at 700 degrees. “Summer is a big pizza time for us. Lunch seems to go from 11am to 5pm in summer and a lot of people come in to share a pizza and a salad. We also do a lot of pizza takeout,” he says.
Pizza is crafted using the time-honoured traditions of the pizzerias of Naples. Made from scratch using fresh ingredients, the Margherita pizza is made with San Marzano tomatoes and fiore di latte mozzarella baked in the stone bottom oven. The dough is made with naturally leavened Italian Caputo doppio zero flour, the secret to a truly authentic thin crust pizza. Other pizzas include grilled eggplant, mushroom and artichoke, fennel sausage and spicy Calabrese.
The restaurant is also known for Italian standards such as prosciutto wrapped around fresh mozzarella, daily risotto specials, chicken and veal parmigiana and osso buco. House specialties include slow roasted house-made polpette (chicken meatballs) served on polenta with peperonata; and house-made ricotta gnocchi served with a choice of tomato or classic Bolognese sauce, fresh spinach and freshly grated ricotta salata.While the pasta is not made in house the sauce and nearly everything else is, including breads and desserts. Bertoldi’s relies on local suppliers, including Metzger Meats of Hensall.
To accompany the meal, diners can choose from an extensive by-the-glass wine list, thanks to the use of a Le Verre de Vin system that removes air from open bottles, allowing the restaurant to keep open bottles fresh for several days. Currently Bertoldi’s offers 35 wines by the glass. As well, winemaker dinners are monthly occurrences, and feature sampling and pairings to a set menu. On special occasions some winemakers from Italy are in house. DiFruscia family members have also toured their favourite wineries in Italy. This was special for DiFruscia as he was born in Hamilton and his parents were both from Montreal. Reconnecting with Italy helped him better understand his ancestors. “The Italian restaurant was something that I always wanted to do,” he says.
He comes to the trade by an interesting route. His grandfather was a knife sharpener in Montreal and a cousin is still operating Bertoldi’s Grinding today. DiFruscia’s father was catering manager at the Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton, where Bob DiFruscia also worked before heading to the University of Guelph and earning a political science degree. DiFruscia then went on to work for food companies including The Old Spaghetti Factory chain in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. After learning the ropes, he decided to go out on his own in 1980 when London landlord Percy Zaifman offered him space in his new plaza on Wilkins Street, in the south end of the city. That was the birth of McGinnis Landing, and of a fantastic hospitality career that has yet to stop. “Everything is about timing,” says DiFruscia. “We were the first of the roadhouses in London and the food component was very special. As we grew, I always asked ‘What’s next?’ … I always wanted to grow, to see what’s next.”
Over the years, DiFruscia has seen his customers become more knowledgeable about food and wine, which he credits to the boom in food shows on TV. “People don’t mind trying different things now, but they still want basic, fresh, simple ingredients.” Chicken parmigiana remains the number one seller on the menu.
Bertoldi’s has seating for 180 including a lively bar area. It is also home to a second story outdoor patio that was famous for being smoke-free when it opened many years prior to current smoking regulations. There are more than 50 staff, many with five to ten years’ experience, including one server who has been with Bertoldi’s since 2003, the year after it opened. The casual atmosphere is appealing to a wide variety of customers including families, those on a business luncheon and students. Booths face out to Pall Mall Street and there is a private room in the back.
650 Richmond St, London
Jane Antoniak is a regular contributor to eatdrink magazine. She is also Manager, Communications and Media Relations at King’s University College, just up the road from Bertoldi’s.