‘Controlled chaos’: Italian sandwich shop boom fuelled by family, tradition

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Family, tradition fuels Montreal’s Italian sandwich shops
WATCH: You can't go far in Montreal without running into an Italian sandwich and coffee shop. They are popping up all over, with some seeing monumental popularity. Though it may be one of the city's hottest food trends, the tradition started long ago. And even the most chic new shops could not survive without one key ingredient: family. Global's Dan Spector has more. – Jan 1, 2024

These days you can’t go far in Montreal without running into an Italian sandwich and coffee shop. They are popping up on many main thoroughfares, with some reaching monumental popularity.

Though it may be one of Montreal’s hottest food trends today, the tradition started long ago. Even the most chic new shops could not survive without the key ingredients of history and family.

At Bossa in Verdun, for example, day after day crowds gather to devour chef and founder Daniel Lo Manto’s succulent sandwiches. Keeping up with the booming demand is a constant battle, he says.

“It’s like controlled chaos, almost like a ballet or a dance,” Lo Manto tells Global News.

Now in its sixth year, the shop pumps out hundreds of sandwiches daily. Chicken parmesan, chicken cutlet, and porchetta are among the most popular picks.

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On sunny summer days, people will line up down the block for Lo Manto’s Italian-inspired creations. It’s a level of popularity the long-time restaurant worker does not take for granted.

“It’s emotional. It’s incredible to see everybody here lining up for the food you created and helped create,” he says. Growing on the success of the Verdun location, Bossa has now expanded to Rosemont and the Time Out Market downtown.

The winning formula at Bossa is one that’s been refined over generations. A key inspiration is Lo Manto’s grandfather, Pasquale Vescio, who emigrated to Canada from Italy in the 1960s.

“He came here with three kids, a wife and no money in his pocket,” Lo Manto says. “He worked at Pizzeria Nino, actually in Ville Emard. He was a pizzaiolo over there for 45 years.”

Business is also booming a few kilometres away at Clarke Café in Pointe-Saint-Charles, where Frank Servedio pays tribute to his late grandfather with every scrumptious sandwich — or sangwich as they’re often called by those in the know.

“Italians, we show our love by cooking,” Servedio says.

Chicken cutlet is his top seller. But just like at Bossa, the porchetta and cold cut sandwiches do very well.

The late Salvatore Servedio founded Boulangerie Clarke in the Mile End in 1980. It was an Italian community institution for 35 years. Frank worked there for 16 of them before it closed in 2015. He launched the new Clarke in 2018.

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“I love the action of working in the restaurant business and I just always had the idea of bringing the Clarke brand back because I knew it was so strong, and I love making sandwiches,” Frank Servedio tells Global News.

Servedio has multiple black and white photos of his grandfather and other family members hanging on the wall near the to Clarke. Servedio initially emigrated to Venezuela from Italy before settling in Canada.

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“My grandfather came from Italy as a carpenter,” Servedio says. One of his brothers actually had a bakery in Verdun that my uncle and dad worked at, and they kind of convinced my grandfather to start the business.”

The establishment recently moved to a new location on Shearer Street in Pointe-Saint-Charles, and has just opened a second location in Kirkland.

The sky high popularity of both Clarke and Bossa has contributed to an explosion of modern-looking, Italian-inspired sandwich and coffee shops opening across Montreal.

Places like La Panzeria on Saint Denis, Americano on Mont Royal, and Caffettiera on Stanley are all thriving.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a trend in the sense that I don’t think it’s going to be gone in a year from now or two. I think it’s here to stay,” Lo Manto says. “But it’s definitely the hot thing at the moment. A lot of people are getting on it.”

Social media is a key focus for Bossa, Clarke and other such establishments. Bossa has close to 30,000 followers on Instagram.

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Lo Manto and Servidio say they’re just putting a new twist and a social media spin on a time tested formula.

“Italian sandwich shops have been around forever, but they were just bakeries or Italian butcher shops,” Servedio says. “Find an Italian church in Montreal or off the island, you’re probably going to see an Italian bakery across the street. Walk in there, go to the deli counter, order a sandwich and you won’t be disappointed.”

Both entrepreneurs have enormous respect for their Italian sandwich forefathers, the old school bakeries and butcher shops that have been implementing the same formula for decades.

NDG Bakery on Upper Lachine is one of them.

There is no chic design and no glossy social media posts there. It’s mostly unchanged from the way the late Vito Devito brought it to life in 1974.

“My dad worked as a baker in Italy, because his uncle and aunt had a family business baking. He started at maybe eight or nine years old as a baker,” says Nicky Devito, who now runs the business with his siblings Mimma and Anthony, staying true to their father’s vision.

“You couldn’t ask for a better man,” Devito says of his father, fighting back tears. Vito passed away in 2013.

His 79-year-old mother Nicoletta is also still in the mix, putting on an apron every now and then and helping out in the kitchen.

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“She doesn’t stop. She’s a hard worker,” Nicky says.

The tomato pizzas, breads and pastries play a starring role, but Angie Cianflone will make you a sandwich that can compete with any other. She commutes three hours per day to get to the bakery, and has been working there for nearly four decades.

“It’s like family here. I’ve gotten old with all of them. It’s like a marriage. I think we lasted more than our marriages,” she says, laughing. Cianflone says she used to call Vito Devito “papa.”

On a mid-December afternoon, NDG Bakery pastryman Gianmarino Michetti was hand-making pillowy soft, ricotta stuffed zeppole. He’s made thousands in his nearly 40 years of service.

“I was working here part time on weekends after school when I was 13. I started at 24 full time,” the 53-year-old artisan says. “We’ve all been here a long time. We’ve grown up together.”

He said Nicky is like his “second brother.” The two have known each other since they were 13.

Cianflone called Michetti her “second brother.”

“He’s like the brother I didn’t have, and I’m like the sister he doesn’t have,” she says.

Nicky Devito is not surprised the art of the Italian sandwich is finding a new audience in Montreal.

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“It’s like a classic. You’re having a sandwich. It’s different. It’s like a fast food, but quality,” he says.

Unlike the new school, NDG Bakery has no social media, though Nicky says the business may begin to implement some sort of online presence in 2024.

“We just refined the business a little bit, but the basics, you can’t touch that. What he started is still there,” Devito says.

Servedio, of Clarke Café, is actually related to the Devitos, and he says his father worked at NDG Bakery for a decade.

“I love that place,” he says. “Those are the kind of bakeries that I’m talking about — you know, old school bakeries, red tomato sauce, pizza. That’s the roots of inspiration of our business.”

Back at Bossa, inspiration from Lo Manto’s grandfather Pasquale Vescio is always in the air. He says his family is the main inspiration behind the business.

“In the summer, we grow all the herbs and he’s actually the one that comes every day, maintains that. He plants everything,” he says of his grandfather. Pasquale doesn’t come in as often anymore, but stays involved.

Lo Manto’s mother Teresa Vescio, who runs Bossa with him, says Pasquale helped teach Daniel how to make tomato sauce and more.

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“He still cooks for my mom. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Teresa says.

Servedio carries his grandfather Salvatore’s family values, work ethic, and style.

“This guy was such a hard worker,” Servedio says. “After he retired, whenever anybody would call in sick at Boulangerie Clarke, he would show up and start slicing cold cuts.”

Whether you prefer to be served Italian perfection by one generation or another, rest assured that there’s a healthy serving of family history and tradition in every bite.

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