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My Toronto

A moving story about immigrants from a country that has always been a magnet for immigrants, with Joe and Lorenzo Di Donato as our wonderful hosts. All in all, an ideal combination for a very special kind of city portrait.

Books and films often dramatize Canada’s wide-open spaces: the unspoilt natural environment, the untamed wilderness. Indeed, in terms of area, the country is the second-largest in the world. And at the same time, one of the most sparsely populated. Statistically speaking, just under four inhabitants share one square kilometre of land between them. Admittedly, in YYZ (Toronto airport’s international code), where we have just safely landed, things look different. Completely different. Toronto is a fascinating global metropolis, enthused Joe and Lorenzo Di Donato, when they persuaded us to pay them a visit. During our descent to the city, with its 2.6 million population, the view from the airplane window certainly looked very promising. The clock shows noon as we enjoy the feeling of terra firma under our feet after eight-and-a-half hours above the clouds. We enter the terminal to a typically warm Italian welcome from our hosts.

You need a good start to the day, advise Joe and Lorenzo, when they pick us up next morning in the hotel lobby. And even before we can think about breakfast, we find ourselves whisked to an imposing building at 672 Dupont Street. ‘For ten years, starting in 1915, Henry Ford made cars here, including the legendary Model T,’ says Joe, giving us a hint of the venerable old building’s proud heritage. Today, it is home to, among other things, the Faema Caffè, where we settle down in a cosy corner to study the delicious items on the menu. Eggs Benedict and a couple of beautifully decorated cappuccinos give us a substantial foundation that would have been the envy of anyone operating a conveyor belt here 100 years ago.

Needless to say, we pepper Joe and Lorenzo with questions. We’re keen to know what is so special about this old, lovingly renovated automobile factory. Lorenzo obliges with an abridged version of the Di Donato family history. ‘Our father, Michael, originally came from Avellino in Italy. After the war, the domestic labour market there was so dried up that he decided to emigrate and try his luck in Canada. He took with him an espresso machine, a shrewd business acumen and the hope of a better life. In Toronto, he was met with a community of immigrants who were pining for their roots. A lousy cup of coffee inspired our father to turn Toronto’s coffee scene upside down. It was clear to him that the country was missing what Europeans had been enjoying for years: namely, top-quality espresso and cappuccino. His passion for perfect coffee, coupled with a vision for giving coffee specialities their rightful place in a new world, inspired our father to establish his own business specializing in the import of coffee machines. The start was pretty tough: Dad’s only customers were immigrants who were opening small cafés, bakeries and restaurants where they could offer Italian-style coffee. He began supplying restaurants, made himself a name in the gastronomic sector and established a business empire that enabled him to buy this building as his head office.’ We are suitably impressed, and grin as Joe takes up the story. ‘It was Dad who brought coffee specialties to Canadian restaurants, and our plan is to do the same as him in households – with automatic machines from JURA.’

The biggest coffee showroom in Canada

A visit to their flagship store shows that the Di Donatos are well on the way to achieving their goal: housed in the same building, it covers a gigantic 20,000 square feet (around 1860 sq.m). With ‘the biggest coffee showroom in Canada’, confirms Lorenzo, which we had already suspected. Displayed in such stylish surroundings, the JURA range is an enormous hit with Canadian coffee lovers. At the centre of the room, we encounter a wonderful reminder of the building’s original purpose: a Model T Ford. ‘Come along,’ Joe tells us, a mischievous glint in his eyes. We ride the elevator to the roof. ‘A century ago, this was Ford's test circuit,’ Lorenzo explains. We ask ourselves whether Ford’s madcap test-drivers back then enjoyed the breathtaking view of the city as much as we are doing right now.

Hotspots and highlights in the metropolis

After what must be one of Toronto’s best-kept secrets, we head for a major tourist hotspot. ‘Since the mid-1960s, Nathan Phillips Square has been one of Toronto’s urban plazas. It was named after one of the most popular mayors in the city’s history and is a place where locals and tourists run into one another – in winter they go ice-skating and in summer they simply stroll around,’ says Joe, adding more background information. And Lorenzo adds: ‘The Square combines history with the modern. Bordering it, you’ll find the old city hall with its eye-catching clock tower as well as the New City Hall. The latter, incidentally, was the work of functionalist Finnish architect, Viljo Revel.’ They both urge us strongly to revisit the Square in the evening after dusk, when the illuminated fountain and a gigantic, lit-up logo displaying the word Toronto give the entire setting an irresistible magic. We make a mental note to do just that.

Next, we take a leisurely stroll up Bay Street to the CF Toronto Eaton Centre, a shrine to consumerism that leaves no wish unfulfilled. With over 250 businesses under one roof, it attracts no fewer than 50 million shoppers every year. ‘The mall is particularly popular during the Christmas season because visitors flock in to admire the biggest Christmas tree in Canada,’ Joe tells us. ‘It’s around 100 feet – or over 30 metres – high.’ Simply looking upward to work out how its immense height would look here in the atrium gives us slightly stiff necks. But that’s forgotten in a trice when we are bombarded by the sights, sounds and smells of the amazing displays and store windows. ‘I can resist everything but temptation,’ wrote the great Oscar Wilde. We have probably never better understood what he meant than now.

Flooded with sensations, but still happily smiling, we follow Joe and Lorenzo across the street to what is probably the liveliest and most popular part of downtown Toronto, Yonge-Dundas Square. We immediately feel reminded of Times Square in New York: gigantic screens and neon lights, wherever you look. Crowds of people, bicycles, scooters, cars, trucks and buses thronging through the narrow space as if protagonists in a finely choreographed ballet directed solely by traffic lights. Lorenzo’s voice stops us in our tracks: ‘Yonge-Dundas Square is the city’s nervous centre. You can feel the pulse of its cultural life at its best. It ranges from concerts and theatre, from cinema to art exhibitions: and it’s all world class.’ Our guests chuckle when they see our eyes, wide open with amazement – a little like children under a Christmas tree – at the incredible wealth of things on offer. At this point, Joe suggests a complete change of perspective. ‘We’ve reserved a table at the CN Tower. What do you say to a drink before dinner?’ In athletics, the speed at which we nod our agreement would probably count as a false start.

A Wonder of the World at a dizzying height

Slender, elegant and of monumental height, the needle-like construction towers up over the city and dominates its skyline. In 2009, its 553 metres assured it of its position as the highest television mast in the world. ‘Our CN Tower is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World,’ enthuses Joe on the way to the top, as we pull a series of weird faces trying to deal with the change in altitude and pressure. The elevator doors open to reveal a sensational view. The restaurant revolves through 360° and, at 351 metres above the ground, has its place in the Guinness Book of World Records. We take our seats and watch the metropolis glide slowly and evenly past us down below. At this point, the sommelier calls for our attention. His wine list is almost as impressive as the view. ‘We have over 9000 bottles in the cellar,’ reveals our wine waiter, although at the word cellar he raises his left eyebrow and gives us an arch grin. ‘The highest cellar in the world ...?’ we murmur. Our waiter nods in agreement.

Savouring the superb vintage he has poured into our glasses, we listen with rapt attention as Joe and Lorenzo tell us all about the city below us, its various districts and must-see sights. When the bottle is empty, the two of them look at us conspiratorially. ‘So, do you have any problems with vertigo?’, Lorenzo asks impishly. We swallow hard. Shortly afterwards, we are up on the observation platform with its glass floor. Although there is absolutely no rational reason for us not to step out onto the solid glass elements, the 442 metres of nothingness between us and the ground below inevitably cause a massive spike in our adrenalin levels. Hesitatingly, we venture a first step. Looking downwards, we have the queasy feeling that we are flying, as if we are, hovering above the abyss.

The day’s crowning glory: a delectable Canadian-style dinner

‘OK, you guys have earned yourselves a special dinner,’ our hosts agree. They drive us through the city to the Casa Loma, a mind-blowing medieval-style castle built in the nineteentens. ‘It was the home of the man who built it, Sir Henry Pellatt, who had a rather chequered history. During the Roaring Twenties, socialites would meet up there for wild parties to the accompaniment of the Casa Loma Orchestra’s big band sound. A syndicate from New York wanted to buy it and turn it into a hotel but the deal collapsed. As a result, it has become quite a tourist attraction. Since 2014, it’s been a melting pot for every imaginable type of cultural event.’ ‘And,’ Lorenzo adds, ‘the Casa Loma is one of the top addresses for high-level cuisine for extra-special occasions.’ Of which the kitchen and cellar of the BlueBlood Steakhouse, which recently opened in the castle, proceed to give an impressive demonstration. The atmosphere, the sophisticated creations and the service are all absolutely top-notch. We wallow in it: this is poetry.

Before the Di Donatos bring us back to our hotel, they insist on showing us the historic Distillery District. Home to many whiskey distillers in the 19th century, the streets in this hip part of the city are now lined with countless bars, restaurants and boutiques. Making our way past the buskers on the sidewalk, we drag ourselves through the streets, exhausted but happy, and enjoying the sights. To round off the evening, we treat ourselves to an espresso.

Vineyards. And vast amounts of water

‘Still whacked?’ asks Joe, grinning, when he and his brother come to pick us up next morning at the hotel. We protest our innocence, blaming our sleepy faces on the jet lag. ‘No worries,’ he reassures us, ‘today’s all about relaxation.’ They drive us around the Golden Horseshoe to Niagara-on-the­Lake – the ‘Prettiest Town in Canada’, as it is known – on the shores of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Niagara River. The town has 27 wineries, a wealth of excellent restaurants and countless inviting stores and boutiques. You could easily spend the entire day there, strolling through the historic lanes, wandering around the vineyards and enjoying the culinary delights at the many eateries.

But Joe and Lorenzo have organized something else for us. ‘The crowning glory of any trip to Toronto has to be a visit to the Niagara Falls,’ says Lorenzo assuredly. A boat ride with the Maid of the Mist takes us up close to this most amazing of natural wonders. You feel the unleashed power of the gigantic masses of water crashing deafeningly to the rocks below. The guide regales us with tales of the crazy individuals who have tried to master the incredible cascades in barrels and paid for their bravado with their lives. Cock-and-bull stories? Nonsense, you don’t question legends.

Taking our leave of Joe and Lorenzo Di Donato when we get back to the hotel is as warm and sincere as the way they have shown us their Toronto. We promise to return, invite them for a return visit to Switzerland and are ready to believe that in the course of the past few days our hearts have perhaps assumed the shape of Canada’s national symbol, the maple leaf. At least, just a little.


Images: Modestino Carbone