Long before King St. was home to celebrated restaurants like Montecito, Byblos and Kiin, it was spotted with factories and gas stations. The turning point came in 1962, when Ed Mirvish purchased the Royal Alexandra Theatre and created a reason to spend time socializing in the neighbourhood. Through the decade’s other theatres opened, as did restaurants all accommodating the flowing community.
“When we first opened, you could throw a cannon down King St. on a Sunday,” Rita Fosco remembers while touring her restaurant La Fenice – a long-standing favourite along Restaurant Row, inherited from her father, Luigi Orgera. Seated now, Rita recalls King St.’s past as a weekend destination reserved for partygoers and show attendees with few wandering pedestrians.
La Fenice began serving its traditional Southern Italian menu in 1986 back when the Entertainment District was earning its name. As teenagers who emigrated from Italy to Canada, Rita’s parents had not anticipated La Fenice’s long-standing success. Luigi began owning restaurants throughout Toronto in 1961, opening La Cantinetta at King and John St. in 1972. Rita remembers her father being inspired by “pure flavours, and the simplicity of high quality, natural ingredients.” La Fenice holds a Ospitalità Italiana award, given to Italian restaurants that are in compliance with quality standards typical of top restaurants in Italy.
Before opening in one of the original Hughes Terrace buildings, Luigi wanted to replicate authentic Milan design in his restaurant’s interior. Italian architects Francesco and Aldo Piccaluga, known for designing the original interior of the CN Tower, were ambitiously contracted to make her dad’s modern vision a reality. Rita stands in the contemporary space proudly pointing out her father’s original artwork hanging on the walls and grandfather’s recovered wartime grain mill placed in the window.
Rita’s husband Rocco is head chef at La Fenice and met Luigi in 1976 while working at La Cantinetta. In Buon Appetito Toronto, edited by the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario, Rocco recalls his father-in-law as “an advanced chef,” who was “way ahead of many other people.” Maintained at its core is priority for pure ingredients and a top-quality meal, service included. “We just won’t change what has been successful for decades. If it’s not broken, we don’t need to fix it. Our food is good. Our ingredients are the best available.” While white linen may seem intimidating to some, it’s clear the professional service at La Fenice is welcoming, attentive and based on family tradition.
The spectacle that is La Fenice’s fish is brought out from the kitchen, revealed and filleted live on a black, granite counter top. The now-popular plate didn’t start off that way; Rita remembers how celebratory crowds increasingly came in requesting the specific dish – the plate is an event. Through each first date, birthday or anniversary dinner the guests of the restaurant have grown older with it. La Fenice is one of those special spots worthy of hosting these memorable moments.
The Entertainment District has grown to accommodate show attendees, party goers and its residents, meaning the guests of La Fenice have subsequently diversified. One thing remains constant is the a consistent approach to food and service that can’t be faked. It’s long-standing clientele and tenured staff members feel like family. It’s commitment to the integrity of the ingredients it uses mean that little has changed since it opened it was created by Luigi 32 years ago. La Fenice is the real deal.