Canadian Pizza Magazine

Features Profiles
Simplicity rules

Inside a new concept with a corporate chef


For Steve Silvestro, food is all about simplicity. Over the years, he’s
sampled some of the world’s most deliciously expensive cuisines and
treated his palate to world-class exotic dishes, but if he had to choose
one final meal (or two) to savour – the choice would be a no-brainer.

For Steve Silvestro, food is all about simplicity. Over the years, he’s sampled some of the world’s most deliciously expensive cuisines and treated his palate to world-class exotic dishes, but if he had to choose one final meal (or two) to savour – the choice would be a no-brainer.

“A simple pizza,” says Silvestro, who was runner-up in Canadian Pizza magazine’s most recent Chef of the Year contest. He smiles warmly as he tells me about his culinary favourites. “A very simple pasta is what would be my last meal, if I had to choose.”

On a warm afternoon in May, Steve and I sit in front of an ice-cold pitcher of water at the recently opened Scaddabush Italian Kitchen – a 6,500-square-foot restaurant situated in the Aura condos at Yonge and Gerrard streets in Toronto. This is the second Scaddabush location – the first being launched July of last year at Square One mall in nearby Mississauga – and just one of two popular restaurants where the 40-year-old is corporate executive chef, the other being Alice Fazooli’s.

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The décor is open, inviting. Large, gilded mirrors, antique lighting fixtures and candelabras are strategically sprinkled throughout the restaurant. The second floor spotlights a huge kitchen table, making it the perfect spot for a large group of friends, family – or even strangers, Silvestro adds – to sit together and share a meal. The food portions are big, “social sizes” in Silvestro’s words, to encourage “family-style” sharing. Just like at nonna’s house, so the restaurant’s motto goes.

Silvestro’s own nonna had a huge influence on his cooking.

Born in Guelph, Ont., to parents of Italian descent, Silvestro started cooking as a young boy. In his household, if you helped prepare dinner, you didn’t have to do the dishes, though naturally, he, his brother and sister were always around with helping hands. His grandmother, his nonna, lived with the family, and he had a “very typical Italian family-style upbringing.”

“There was always something cooking on the stove. Life revolved around the kitchen, the food, the grandmothers,” he reminisces. “It just ended up that, for me, it was a really important part of our life every day. I think at an early age before I started doing it professionally, I knew I enjoyed cooking. Once I got out of the house, 19, 20 years old, I had to pay the rent. I gravitated towards kitchens – at that point I really enjoyed it.”

In the late 1990s, Silvestro enrolled in George Brown’s Italian Culinary Arts program. The program specializes in modern Italian cuisine and provides students with the opportunity to participate in an externship in Italy for a few months. Silvestro qualified for his Italian passport and jumped on the first plane to Italy. He fell in love with the country, its food and its culture. His first contract job was a seasonal position that ended after only a few months. Silvestro felt he still had a lot to learn, and he begged the chef to find him another job. He was sent to Milan and ended up at a great restaurant where he began to perfect his cooking skills. He returned to the seasonal job after that placement and continued to hone his craft.

“That’s where I really learned the real true Italian cooking, the ‘simple-is-best,’ the ‘rely-on-the-ingredients’ kind of Italian style of cooking,” says Silvestro. “That’s how we cooked at home, but when you are in Italy and you are going outside of the hotel to clip the rosemary from the bush that’s out there, there’s nothing more fresh than that, right?”

He learned from the best chefs – “great chefs at the peak of their careers,” as Silvestro describes them. Chefs who were very cool, very open to work with and open to sharing their culinary skills with him. Men like Alberto Vezzoli, who was awarded the title of Italy’s Chef of the Year while Silvestro was visiting. He worked with Carlo Bresciani, who was instrumental in going to Asia and Japan and mentoring students over there.

Silvestro’s planned stay in Italy extended from a few months to two years. “I always remember, one day in Italy, it was my day off. I was working at a lake resort, I came back from a great day in the sun and it was hot, and I was tired, and I came in and one of the chefs made me spaghetti with tomato basil. One of the simplest dishes in the world. A little bit of hot peppers – and it was probably the best thing I’ve ever eaten up until that point. Every time I have spaghetti I think about that and I always try to replicate that.  I don’t want to overstate it and say life-changing, but it’s that moment where … the tomatoes were so fresh and I tasted the basil, and the spaghetti was cooked perfectly. It was just the perfect meal at that time. It’s as simple as that.”

After learning as much as he could about classic Italian cooking, Silvestro felt it was time to take his skills back to Canada. He accepted a job at a French bistro on Yonge Street called Pastis, where he went from helping out on weekends to serving as sous chef to eventually becoming the executive chef.

“I was there for eight years, doing French food. French bistro food is very similar to Italian food: simple ingredients-driven recipes, hands-on, fresh ingredients. So that was my first position as head chef, calling the shots, designing menus and really being in control,” he says. “My career kind of just started falling into place.”

After Pastis there were a few transitional jobs, everything from plugging away at a butcher shop to working as corporate chef at the Italian-concept restaurant Il Fornello. In 2011, he met the concept leader for Alice Fazooli’s. The restaurant was looking for a chef who could authentically translate traditional Italian cooking to a larger concept.

“Alice Fazooli’s is part of a corporation where, when I walked in, we had five locations. So I’m coming from a little bistro on Yonge Street. I needed to then translate my skills . . . at five different locations at the same time. It was cool, it was great.” Silvestro adds that it was a “natural progression” of his skills and a great opportunity to continue learning his craft in a different situation.

“I came from all these beautiful little restaurants and these nice little restaurants in Italy to this corporate situation and [dealing with] beverage departments and purchasing departments and all these things that were new to me,” says Silvestro. “It was a great learning opportunity and I think it was a good match for Alice Fazooli’s as well because then they get to work with a chef who has that hands-on experience on how Italian food is cooked.”

But with great pizza comes great responsibility. Silvestro works on average 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes weekends and nights. (“The time when other people play,” he adds.) Over the years he’s found ways to adapt his schedule to his family’s needs. Silvestro breaks into a huge grin as he talks about his wife, six-year-old son and seven-month-old daughter. 

“When I was coming up and being that chef on the line, cooking every day, my obligations were different. But my wife, my partner, she really understood that. She embraced the lifestyle and working in small little restaurants in Toronto, she can become a part of that restaurant family. When we had our first baby, they came together a lot and ate with us, and so, you’ve got to sort of, if you’re able to, bring your family into your restaurant world because it becomes a lot easier that way.”

Silvestro gives me the grand tour of Scaddabush. We walk to the back of the restaurant and face a large see-through window into the kitchen area. The staff makes fresh pasta, as well as prepare fresh mozzarella daily from 11 a.m. Silvestro first got the idea to prepare fresh mozzarella about two years ago. He tells me what he dubs his “mozzarella” story.

“I was on a trip to Napa Valley with some of my colleauges and we spent some days at the Culinary Institute of America doing some workshops. We also had tours and we went to this one winery. They brought us downstairs, and as soon as we got downstairs, there was this chef, with this beautiful setup stretching fresh mozzarella. And none of us had ever had it fresh and warm like that. So he was stretching it, showing us how and right from his hands, giving it to us. And we’d be eating it – it was that hot. And then we all got to cook it as well…We were talking about it when we got back here; it was just natural for us to try to find a fit in this concept to do fresh mozzarella. It seemed intimidating. Fresh mozzarella to order? Is that crazy to do for a 300-seat restaurant? But we tried and we learned how to do it. I taught the team and it’s not as intimidating as we thought.”

“What does the future hold for you?” I ask, as he shows me around the kitchen area, where the staff is busily making preparations for a special Mother’s Day meal. Silvestro pauses, as if in deep thought.

“I hope to always be able to be this engaged in what I’m passionate about. I love cooking Italian food, I love cooking food, I love working in restaurants. At this point in my career nothing could be better. I’m in a great restaurant, I’m in a great company, I’m doing what I love to do.”