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What's Next for Little Italy?

Posted by Rick McGinnis / October 28, 2009

The Café Diplomatico in Little ItalyNo one will deny that Little Italy - the stretch of College Street between Bathurst and Crawford - is looking more than a little threadbare these days. Empty storefronts dot the once-bustling blocks, and pigeon droppings stain the signs above the cafes and martini bars that are still managing to hang on after the strip's 1990's boom.

Rocco Mastrangelo has seen it all . His family opened the Café Diplomatico in 1968, just as the street began losing its Italian constituency to St. Clair West and then Woodbridge, and hung on long enough to ride the boom into the new century's bust. He's the vice-chair of the local BIA, and he's watched the roller coaster ride from the Dip's patio tables.

"We've lost a lot of good clientele," Mastrangelo says. "The person that wants to wine and dine doesn't seem to be coming back as much."

The College StripEugene Barone watched it all as well, and then got out. Barone worked for Rocco's father and uncle at the Dip, then bought a variety store next door with his brother before learning that his favourite place to get coffee - a gent's local called Bar Italia - was for sale. He moved in and started serving food, then watched as the boom began and the old boys left.

"We were younger and we ran with things we liked," Barone recalls, "and we were getting a nice younger crowd and the ladies were coming in, and they didn't feel comfortable. It wasn't their hangout anymore."

The media took notice, and Barone became the "King of College Street" - the first of a series of restaurateurs, many second-generation Italians and Portugese, who wanted to spiff up the old neighbourhood. What came next was a wave of eateries and bars, some still operating (The Midtown, College Street Bar, Kalendar, Sintra, Souz Dal), that made Little Italy the hottest spot in town in the decade after the Berlin Wall fell.

The Royal Theatre in Little ItalyThe friction between business owners and nearby residents led to new zoning precedents at City Hall, and worries about how to manage the progression from hip little eateries to raucous nightclubs that almost seems inevitable - a battle being fought, some would say preemptively, on Ossington today.

"The best part was to see the flock of people," Barone recalls. "When I had the variety store we couldn't even get a cab on College... the only thing you'd see in the evening was the streetcar and a few cars going by. Seeing that parade of people up and down the street at night... that was pretty thrilling. Of course the media took over and everybody was talking about it, and then the worst part was the clubs and the bars. That's when I lost it a bit. I was getting older and seeing a lot of kids getting drunk, and it wasn't about the food anymore."

Barone sold up five years ago, moved away and opened Rosina's, a little place in Port Elgin. Mastrangelo intends to stay put, but thinks that the future of the strip probably lies with the local homeowners, who might have moved there to be near the action, but went on to start families, and now want to see a mix of retail, cafes and nightspots that resembles the College street of Rocco's parents.

""I guess what's going to happen is that we'll probably hit a little lull now, and there'll be a weeding out of bad operators, and the scene will change, and the tolerance for a nightclub will not continue," he speculates. "The fact that we have a lot of well-to-do commercial owners means that a new trend will be coming in. It could be retail... who knows?"

Another view of the College Strip



Gloria / October 28, 2009 at 12:47 pm
Nice piece. Not too much speculation on the author's part; just a few facts and a lot of locals' memory. I guess maybe this isn't news to old-timers in the area, but I moved in last year and it's interesting to know this stuff. Wondering what's next.
david / October 28, 2009 at 02:02 pm
This sites College St. bashing is becoming transparent. Why not speak with Current College St. Business owners who are sucessful
and have been here throughout, rather than someone who sold and left 5 years ago? Most of the " Night Clubs " like Plaza Flamingo, Sneaky Dees, El Covenento Rico were here before the so called boom and are still thriving.
bittles / October 28, 2009 at 02:23 pm
thats not little italy david.

mod club, revival, shallow grove, that shitty place below mod club

those are the night clubs that are being referred too.
Erica / October 28, 2009 at 02:36 pm
bittles - El Convento Rico is right beside the Mod Club.
Richie / October 28, 2009 at 02:54 pm
College street? Nothing there....BORING, and also Landlords are charging huge rent to be near this poor street they call little Italy....
College street time of death " long ago"
the wizard of ossington / October 28, 2009 at 03:02 pm
dude, when was the last time you went to college st? judging by these pictures it was at 4 pm on like a wednesday afternoon when it was probably 7 degrees out. i can remember a month ago, on a freaking sunday (when it was admittedly warmer) going for a jog around 6 pm and having to weave in and out of the hundreds of people on either side of the street. college st. is home to so many great restaurants (kalendar, sidecar, bite!, coco lezzone, cafe dip, nirvana, SO MANY MORE! etc.), venues (mod club, sneaky dee's, rancho relaxo, strangelove), and so many awesome businesses (soundscapes, queen/ammo video). your pictures are terribly inaccurate. AND royal theatre was totally showing district 9 and bruno for the past month!! what gives with this post??
Kara / October 28, 2009 at 03:50 pm
I agree with the wizard. I've lived in this area for a little over a year and can honestly say that businesses are not suffering. Weaving through crowds at night is a common occurrence from Thursday to Sunday and I'm not sure where bashing the neighbourhood has any backing ...
mondayjane / October 28, 2009 at 04:12 pm
As someone who worked at the original Bar Italia before it moved to its current location, and who has frequented/lived in the area since 1992, I can safely say that College Street has certainly changed. Is it a dying neighbourhood? Not necessarily. Change does not mean "over" or "fail". As Queen West before it, there is an evolution. And it is a matter of personal taste as to whether that evolution is fabulous or not-happening. I for one am glad nothing stays the same! <br> <br>

Also, Eugene Barone was great to work for, and an excellent reference for this article. He treated his staff - and the community - with respect and reverence, and he ran his business like a real gent.
Buck / October 28, 2009 at 04:13 pm
I too agree with the wiz. My family and I moved to the area two years ago and love it. I wish there were more markets and grocery options though. Metro is terrible and an LCBO in that plaza would be great. I like supporting the local businesses including: Kalendar, Utopia, Grace, and Negroni.
jameson / October 28, 2009 at 04:14 pm
condo conversions push everyone out except the rich
david / October 28, 2009 at 04:37 pm
Re Bittles Sneaky Dees and Plaza Flamingo are 20 feet away from the boundry of little Italy which starts at Bathurst St.
mr hate / October 28, 2009 at 05:02 pm
Just because the kool kids who come to blogto don't frequent the establishments or new establishments on College that doesn't mean the street is dying. As far as I can see, the street is a mix of all kinds of eating and drinking venues for cheeseballs, uni kids, 25-30's, 30+'s, 40+'s, families, kool kids and people looking to dance. Not sure what people are complaining about.

I don't particularly care for most of the street, but it's still lively on the weekends and people are making a buck, so who gives a shit if it's not your cup of tea? It probably wouldn't have been in the apparent heyday 90's either when most of you were in high school.

scott / October 28, 2009 at 05:04 pm
I used to frequent College Street starting back in 1995 i loved the area so much i bought a house on Clinton Street 5 years ago I still frequent a lot of the places on the strip, to have dinner - Sidecar
Sorrisso- Utopia- Giancarlos- Kalendar and for a night out Andy Poolhall Revival Mod Club The Orbit Room are my favourites. I don't have to go to Queen W or Qssington as all i need is within walking distance of home.
TorontoLover / October 28, 2009 at 06:06 pm
You call this an ARTICLE?

Man, internet space is free, not like newsprint, why are you limiting space on the freakin net for?

This had the potential of being a great piece.
morga replying to a comment from the wizard of ossington / October 28, 2009 at 07:06 pm
Must agree with wiz, most evenings college is busier than most in the city.
Janey Mack replying to a comment from Buck / October 28, 2009 at 07:38 pm
I just moved to College Street a month ago and I have to agree with Buck- the Metro/ College Square plaza needs an LCBO, it sucks ass having to go to Bathhurst or Dundas.

Anyway I thought I was going to be moving into this bustling little authentic neighbourhood, I expected little osterias serving cheap antipasti and good wine by the glass. Instead I got: A) tacky martini bars full of yuppies who obviously can't handle their drink, since who spill out of them at 4am (well past closing) screaming abuse at the traffic. B) Overpriced restaurants serving terrible pasta with rude staff and C) A total lack of any type of community atmosphere whatsoever, apart from the fat guy who sits at the Skotiabank talking to himself every day.

The only saving graces are Soundscapes, the video stores, Ted's collision and the fact that it is close enough to walk to Ossington & Kensington.

Johnny Lombardi would be turning in his grave.
rek / October 28, 2009 at 07:54 pm
There are three new(ish) coffee places between Spadina and Bathurst alone; which part of College is supposed to be the dead zone?
James / October 28, 2009 at 09:52 pm
While the ModClub often annoys and disappoints, the ethnic clubs like Rico and Rosa Branca cause far more disturbance. Overall, the area just doesn't feel friendly and it is a pain to get to.
Ben replying to a comment from James / October 28, 2009 at 09:56 pm
How is it a pain to get to? It's one block away. Pretty lazy I'd say.
Just sayin / October 28, 2009 at 10:30 pm
Rick - second thriving neighbourhood you crap on in as many weeks. Enough.
Barftro / October 28, 2009 at 10:41 pm
Metro = worst grocery store ever ever ever
ayl / October 29, 2009 at 01:12 am
But free parking at Metro!
Christian Louboutin Replica / October 29, 2009 at 04:38 am
Of course the media took over and everybody was talking about it, and then the worst part was the clubs and the bars. That's when I lost it a bit. I was getting older and seeing a lot of kids getting drunk, and it wasn't about the food anymore.
tripper / October 29, 2009 at 09:26 am
I've lived on Clinton for five years and I don't see any evidence of a dying neighbourhood. As other posters have said, college St. is thriving. It's busy every night, especially on weekends. In fact sometimes it's too busy on weekends, due to too many of those stupid martini bars.

It may have lost a lot of its authentic Italian-ness over the years but there are still great restaurants, bakeries, pizza joints, groceries, cafes, bars, shopping, etc.
local / October 29, 2009 at 09:27 am
I live in Little Italy, have for years and tend to frequent College street. Here's what we need to keep the neighbourhood going.

We need Joe Pantalone gone - he's done nothing to help and much to hinder; we need some serious produce/fruit stands that don't reek of codfish and cat piss; we need an LCBO or at the very bloody least, a wine rack; and most of all, we need some people to come visit, enjoy the restaurants and the strolls and get to know the area.

What we don't need: drunken visitors yelling at 4am; puke sprayed hither and yon as is from a sick yak; sidewalks half taken over by patios; rents so high you need binoculars to see them; restaurants serve something other than sushi/fusion/Italian/pub food.

It's a great neighbourhood. It nurtured Caplansky's, has Sam James Coffee Bar, Gatto Nero and Riviera for espresso. It's got some great locals bars, some awesome food. Friendly people (for the most part) and some new arrivals that are making it interesting to live here (hello Gaucho). Piss and moan all you want but it's got a vibe that I like and there's a metric shitload of potential waiting for the right people to arrive.
randy / October 29, 2009 at 04:31 pm
I just heard that sales at one of Yorkville's Restaurants was lower than normal last night!!!!! looks like Yorville is Going down!!!! better get on it Quick Rick/BlogTo
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