When Fazio’s Restaurant founder and family patriarch Tino Fazio combined his powerhouse personality with his desire to establish a fine dining experience in a region of Ontario previously known as a “mixed drinks” crowd, people said he was crazy.
But the immigrant from Sicily, Italy, who grew up poor and at times didn’t have money for shoes, had yet to meet a challenge he couldn’t overcome.
Hard work, a charismatic personality, and Sonny Bono good looks drew customers in from the first day of business in 1979. And ever since, he and his family have awakened the foodies and wine connoisseurs of Oshawa, Ontario in a way few would have imagined when Tino first introduced grappa and braised duck to a region where these menu items were previously unknown.
“Many thought my father was crazy to open his restaurant where he did. At the time it was a mixed drinks and beer crowd, but he was ahead of his time”, says Nicholas Fazio, Tino’s son and co-owner.
“My dad sold them on it. My Dad looked like Sonny Bono when he was younger, and everybody who met him never forgot him. He just had this amazing energy and everybody loved him.”
Though Tino has slowed down just a bit at age 74 (he looks about 55) and handed over the reins of the family business to his son Nicholas, daughter Rosaleen, and son-in-law Martin, he is still a presence at a restaurant known for its delectable fine food, extensive wine collection, and collegial family atmosphere.
In a Q&A with Boxerbrand Blog Recipe for Success, Nicholas Fazio answers questions about the challenges and rewards of running a landmark restaurant.
Q: What was the greatest challenge in bringing Fazio’s Restaurant to fruition?
The language barrier was the biggest thing for my Dad. He came from Sicily and he didn’t speak the language right away. He’d also operated pizzerias before he decided to get into fine dining. Another barrier was the area he chose. At the time, it was a GM town with a real mixed drink and beer crowd. It’s not like that today. But at the time it was a bold move. A lot of people thought he was crazy.
Q: The menu your father crafted was also pioneering for its time.
My Dad always liked to go with the hard things, and develop things that weren’t in style yet. We sold grappa in the late 90s before people knew what it was, and he introduced duck and lamb when dishes like that weren’t customary for the region or the time.
Nobody was doing duck when my father introduced it in a variety of presentations. The way we glaze it is very special, and you just don’t see anything like it around here. The same is true for our Ossobuco—our slow-braised veal shank is something you still don’t see much around here.
Q: How did Fazio’s attract its first customers?
It was all my Dad. Everybody who met my father came back for him. When they walked in the door, the first question was, ‘Is Tino here? Where’s Tino?” Everybody liked him so much. He treated everybody so well, and people just gravitated to him; he was his own advertising in a way.
Q: How have you kept the awareness up and momentum going?
We do a lot of networking on Facebook and promotions in the paper. Because we’ve been here for so long, we’ve become a recognizable institution, and a destination restaura
nt. We’ve been recommended word-of-mouth, and we get fantastic reviews in places like Trip Advisor.
We stay current by keeping the quality of food up, the prices fair, and by maintaining a great atmosphere. We buy triple A meat but prefer to get Black Angus beef, and when we have an opportunity to pass along a better price to the customer, we do it. If our wine costs, for example, take a slight dip, we’re going to offer the wine at a better price rather than taking the profit point.
Q: In addition to your commitment to the best ingredients, you maintain a huge wine list. Tell me about that.
At one point we had 38,000 bottles of wine. Now we’re at about 15,000 bottles. We developed our cellar mainly by spending time with the customers and selling them on it, getting them on board to try new things.
Wine became very important to us and we eventually opened a separate wine import business, Essential Wine Group, which I’m the president of. I studied wines in Italy before we opened. My Dad took a lot of chances, but he never looked at it as just a business. He became friends with our patrons, and he created a family business for me and my sister Rosaleen, her husband Martin and my wife Angela.
Q: It must be very rewarding having the family involved in the business. What are the upsides, or difficulties?
Everything is good and bad. We were always brought up that family came first. He has always been really fair to us, and he gave us this chance. As a child, my Dad was very poor and he didn’t have shoes. He had no advantages. He was brought up by his brothers, and came here with $5 in his pocket. It was his drive that fed our family and made this great business.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who dreams of opening their own restaurant?
If you’re not going to put all of it in, don’t do it. It’s not an easy business. If you don’t have the drive and the passion, it’s better you don’t. A lot of times people get into it because they love to cook, but it takes much more than that. You need to study. And if you’re going to get into this business, go somewhere, embrace your own culture, and travel to that country and learn. You have to have the passion.
Fazio’s uses Boxerbrand’s Metallic Tones menu covers.