Don’t be fooled by the fancy new deli counter and snazzy chalkboard sign—at St. Clair West’s Tre Mari Bakery, the silky tripe and sticky amaretti cookies remain thoroughly old-school Italian.
Last year, when the Deleo family renovated the deli counter at their St. Clair West institution, Tre Mari Bakery, they weren’t sure how their customers, who’d been coming in for half a century, would react. The changes were relatively minor—a new case for the imported herbed hams and Parma prosciutto, a new chalkboard sign—but on the day they were revealed, one of Tre Mari’s regulars came in and nearly dropped her rosary beads.
“She came running up to the cash and told me, ‘Oh my god, you changed the deli!’” recalls owner AnnaMarie Deleo. “‘Don’t you dare change the floor! Don’t you dare change the bakery!’ For our customers, it’s important to come somewhere that stays the same.” She adds, “We don’t bake or cook at home like we used to. You come to a place like this and it feels like you could have made the food.”
It’s also a place that serves as a community pillar, where the fabric of social and cultural life is tied together by the daily routines that pass over shots of espresso and small amaretti cookies, chewy and slightly sticky from the marzipan at their core. New deli case notwithstanding, Tre Mari Bakery is a rock of continuity on St. Clair’s Corso Italia, the post-war neighborhood that became a landing pad for the city’s Italian immigrants. Vincent and Mary Deleo arrived here in 1953 from Siderno, a town in the southern province of Calabria, the region that was originally home to much of Toronto’s Italian community. Three years later, the Deleos opened a grocery store, which sold imported Italian products that were unavailable in the city at the time.
“In those days, you didn’t have a lot of Italian places like you do today,” AnnaMarie, Vincent and Mary’s daughter-in-law, says. “You couldn’t go and get extra virgin olive oil at No Frills. You had to come here and shop along St. Clair.” Each day, as the women came in to buy their olives and bocconcini cheese, and the men popped by for cappuccinos and a bite of ricotta-filled canolis, they shared news of back home, of marriages and deaths, sickness and health, opportunities, jokes, and gossip. In the early 1960s, when the Deleos expanded the grocery store to a bakery, tables appeared and those customers lingered for hours, debating and talking well into the night, as friends strolled by the strip with their own families, stopping by for a bite or just to check in. Think of Tre Mari Bakery as a living, breathing version of Facebook, served with a side of tender veal cutlets smothered in glossy onions, sautéed mushrooms, and sweet tomato sauce.
Of course, the food pulled them in, as it continues to today. The breads are all baked daily—from huge crusty calabrese loafs to fennel-studded taralli pretzels—and there is a glass display case filled with small cookies, some with maraschino cherries in the middle, others with sprinkles and icing. (Naturally, there are several flavours of biscotti, as well.) You can get a sandwich of rosemary-scented imported ham, shaved until it’s translucent, that’s paired with sharp provolone cheese, made fresh for less than five bucks. Or you can head over to the hot table and grab a plate of gorgeous, silky tripe, as light and tender as a well-cooked noodle, bathed in fresh basil-tomato sauce along with a side of garlicky rapini, poached in olive oil until it barely holds together.
Community institutions like Tre Mari draw their power from their clientele, but ultimately, they thrive on the commitment of their owners. When those owners opt to franchise, sell to new management, or change too radically, a certain magic is lost, and their ability to anchor the community dissipates. The Deleos know this, which is why Mary and Vincent (she’s 83, he’s 92) still work at the bakery they founded, coming down from their apartment upstairs to check on the breads early in the morning, or to kiss the nonnas having coffee in the afternoon. They also greet the young new families who have moved into the area—often Jewish, Caribbean, or Latin American—and the Eritreans who congregate regularly after church services on Sundays. The Corso may not be as Italian as when it first developed, but the neighbourly spirit the Deleos established has always extended to everyone who comes by.
“To us, the bakery is not about earning a living,” says AnnaMarie, whose four sons are now working in the business, and who still lives in the same house behind the bakery as she did when she married into the family. “We don’t come in here looking to take a paycheque. My sons, my parents—we all have a relationship with our customers.”
Tre Mari Bakery, 1311 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-654-8960.