A Taste of Italy in Toronto

Festival season is in full swing. Summer is a great time to be in Toronto since there are multiple events going on at the same time. I had just heard about the “Taste of Little Italy” street festival and decided to partake of a little free-admission Italo-style celebration.

When I got there yesterday at about noon the restaurants and bands were still setting up. Streets were closed all the way from Euclid to Shaw and everyone was working feverishly to prepare for the 3rd and final day of this year’s Taste of Little Italy. All the major bars and restaurants had big screen TVs to beam the live Brazil-Australia World Cup match to a crowd of avid soccer fans.

At the heart of Little Italy is the CHIN Building, headquarters of Toronto’s first multicultural / multilingual radio station, founded by famous Italian-Canadian entrepreneur and community leader Johnny Lombardi. CHIN broadcasts in more than 30 languages in Toronto, in more than 18 languages in Ottawa/Gatineau and is available via satellite all across North America.

Little Italy is one of Toronto’s most popular entertainment areas with a great variety of Italian restaurants, trattorias, bars and caf├ęs. Other cultures have also made culinary inroads and you’ll find Japanese, Mexican, Peruvian and Portuguese eateries as well.

Since the festival wasn’t quite off the ground yet I decided to treat myself to a little lunch and chose a nice window seat at “El Bodegon”, one of Toronto’s foremost Latin restaurants. Although the menu is dominated by meat and seafood, I opted for a light meal, combining a savoury avocado salad with fried plantains, one of my favourite vegetables. I had a perfect view from my little table by the window and caught a glimpse of two celebrities making a brief appearance: Jack Layton, federal NDP leader, and Olivia Chow, now a federal Member of Parliament. Toronto’s foremost political power couple, made an appearance on their bikes at the street festival.

At about 1:30 pm the music started to get going and right across from my lunch spot a two-man band started to play Latin rhythms and flamenco. After a very satisfying mid-day meal I started strolling through the area and chatted with a few of the bands. One of the music groups, Los Imbakayunas, is from Peru and tours all throughout Eastern Canada during the summer months and plays at various street festivals and special events. The hot Peruvian rhythms and melodic sounds of the pan flute were enchanting the crowds and hips were started to gently sway. Even a woman in an electric wheelchair started to dance exuberantly to the music.

I talked to a gentleman from the Coro Folcloristico Italia di Toronto who informed me that his group has been singing for more than 15 years and their repertoire includes the whole gamut of Italian folk songs, from the north to the south. I also had a brief chat with Pablo Terry, bandleader and flute player of Sol de Cuba who has been brightening up the Toronto music scene for the last 11 years.

Across the street was another band playing Latin Jazz, followed by a group playing contemporary Italian music. A few steps down from Terry was the Jeanine Mackie Band who got the street cooking with their funk, blues and R&B tunes. Further east another Italian choir, the Coro Abruzzo, was setting up for its performance.

A street festival always attracts interesting people. An older gentleman on a bike decorated with a tiger tail, a green plastic superhero adorning the handlebar and a tyrannosaurus rex made an appearance. Of course I had to talk to him. He said his name was Mickey, he’s retired now and he figured decorating his bike would be something to do in his retirement. From dressed-up dogs to dogs in baskets on bikes, everyone seemed to have a lot of fun.

Various entertainment areas were set up for children: young ones were running back and forth inside a very large inflatable train, a soccer challenge was set up and at “Hoop It Up” people could test their basketball skills. Various games of chance were enticing the crowd to try their luck.

Low-cost shiatsu massages were available and henna tattoos could also be obtained. Many of the local stores participated in the festival by providing special sale-priced items on the street.

The Nicorette girls, dressed in devilish red dresses, adorned with diabolic tails, were handing out free stop-smoking chewing gum, trying to entice the smokers to give up their filthy habit.

More freebies were to be had in the form of “clodhoppers”, a truly delicious concoction of fudge and graham wafer crackers. I have to admit I walked by the Clodhoppers truck four times just to scrounge up another free sample of these delicious sweet treats. Another bunch of people were handing out free taste bags of Doritos, containing the new Jalapeno flavour. Later on I bought a pop at Kalendar Koffee House and was promptly given a free hot Nutella sandwich. The generosity was appreciated.

Freebies were available everywhere, free music and very reasonably priced food samples (costing between $1 and $5) made for a great low-cost outing on a hot June weekend.

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