Morellina: The Italian Restaurant Using Food To Create Seasonal Ensembles
While the co-founders of Morellina’s describe their restaurant’s style as “modern Italian,” for both, it’s more about breaking tradition.
Before they founded their Italian restaurant, Morellina’s, Sandra Morelli and Lina Hatem were living different lives. Where Morelli came from a family of pasta makers, Hatem was teaching piano, interested in starting a music school.
But after a period of cooking for each other, changing recipes and finding how much fun they were having with food, they decided to give the Morellina’s venture a go. As Morelli says, “Morellina’s started because we met.”
Initially, the business started as a catering project. From there, it was turned into a café and then what it is today: an Italian-inspired restaurant in the heart of Toronto. While the business has moved through different iterations, what’s been constant is a desire to bring people together, founded on both Morelli’s and Hatem’s shared experiences of hosting and having people around.
“I grew up in Damascus, Syria. It’s very similar to Italian culture, where doors are open, you’re talking to your neighbours, an espresso turns into a pizza, and it becomes a big party with food and family,” says Hatem. “That’s the vision we always saw and wanted — bringing people together and having a good time, with food.”
It’s this ethos that drives what they do at Morellina’s, offering menus that change with the seasons and initiatives such as private dining. “Private dining means you really get to enjoy each other, and we’ll create a menu according to the tastes of the party,” Morelli says. “You can come, and your family won’t feel rushed to leave.”
“That’s the vision we always saw and wanted — bringing people together and having a good time, with food”
Alongside their shared vision of bringing people together, the duo is informed by each other’s differences. Morelli, coming from an environment where food was perceived as an art, takes care of the cooking. Hatem, whose piano-playing background inspires her creative process, takes care of the baking.
“In music, it’s very much art and science at the same time. Through baking, I was able to apply the same methods of following instructions, and knowing all the small elements play a big role in the final results. It’s the same with music: There’s so much that goes into performance to make it look or sound the way it is,” says Hatem.
At the time of writing, the menu at Morellina’s includes dishes such as burrata bruschetta, served with herb focaccia crostini and extra virgin olive oil. There’s pappardelle bolognese, created with handmade pasta and topped with rosemary. The cannelloni della campagna features pasta rolled with ricotta, and the pesce alla puttanesca’s sauce is made with cherry tomatoes, asparagus, black olives and capers.
The food is described as Italian-style, but the more you speak with Morelli and Hatem, the more you understand that tradition is just a springboard, and rules are meant to be broken. They talk of breaking traditions instilled by their parents or different regions, and how that can introduce positive, unexpected results. Morelli talks about one instance where, wanting to make a s’mores cookie, the marshmallow accidentally seeped out of the edges. “It made this brûlée, crispy sugar, and that became the best part,” she says. “We started making it crisp. The accident was perfect.”
Morelli also talks of the first time she fell in love with za’atar, a dried wild thyme mixture with sesame seeds popular in the Middle East, and how she combined it with focaccia bread and mozzarella to create something distinct. “It’s a modern world, and even today in Italy, it’s very open to different cuisines,” Morelli continues. “We’re using the open-world concept to try different things.”
It sits in line with the fact that dishes at Morellina’s are designed to complement one another. Morelli tells us that guests will often order a whole menu as a tasting experience, prompting her to call it “a seasonal ensemble.”
Given the events of the past two years, the restaurant has had to adapt and overcome its challenges. For example, the pandemic saw them switch to offering curbside pickup to weather the storm of uncertainty. Through that time, the pair are quick to mention the support they had from the local community, and how every time the restaurant unveiled a new experiment, people came out to try it.
“We became friends with a lot of clients,” notes Hatem. “They saw us when we were a small café and the developments we took to stay alive. They really supported us at every stage. The community and neighbourhood are the No. 1 factors to our success and survival.”
It’s clear that passion reaches every touch point of Morellina’s, from the food to the feeling of sitting in for a meal. When asked how they would define hospitality, that ethos continues to ring true. “Creating memories,” says Morelli. “We’re the platform. What happens from there is for them to remember and hold onto.”
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL