Salvatore Mele: An Oretta Well Spent

With its traditional southern Italian cooking, stunning design and fun atmosphere, Oretta has made its mark on Toronto’s ultra-competitive King Street West.

Toronto’s King Street West is one of those rare ground-zero areas for world-class dining in North America, with outstanding culinary experiences and chefs located on almost every block. If a restaurant can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

And that’s what makes the success of Oretta even more impressive since its opening in 2017, when acclaimed Toronto restaurateur Salvatore Mele, owner of The Mele Group, decided to branch south from his successful and long-established Capocaccia on Yonge Street, south of St. Clair Avenue, to open Oretta, located at 633 King St. W. in Toronto.

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“We had been looking around for a little while,” says Mele. “We were looking to do something bigger, and this location could give us two floors and more than 250 seats, so when it became available we jumped on it. We were looking for a downtown flagship, front and centre, to draw a lot of people and to give The Mele Group a stronger presence in the city. The name Oretta we decided upon was short, sweet and stylish; it loosely means ‘an hour’ in Italian.”

An hour is the least amount of time anyone will want to spend in this stylish and delicious space. Big, bright, bold and open, its design is both captivating and commanding, and certainly a standout among Toronto’s leading restaurants.

“I find many restaurants are sometimes dark,” says Mele. “I travel a lot, and style and fashion are an interest of mine. In New York City, I saw some elements that interested me and colour palettes that I shared with our designer. I call this ‘transitional contemporary’ in an Italian thematic — modern and old together — with arches and an art deco feel. It’s something that is popping, wacky and different.”

Knowing his business as well as he does, Mele knew the type of pressure Oretta would be under to succeed along King West, and in his mind, the area itself played to his new venture’s advantage.

“I call this ‘transitional contemporary’ … it’s something that is popping, wacky and different” — Salvatore Mele

“King West is one of the busiest areas of Toronto, and that’s good,” says Mele. “If other restaurants in the area are busy, people might pop into Oretta to have a drink and decide to stay and eat. My school of thought is to cultivate the neighbourhood because King West is so successful. We probably wouldn’t be this busy if King West weren’t so busy, and we like having a lot of eyeballs on us, as it keeps our food and service at the top of its game.”

Additionally, and as was always a part of Mele’s plan for Oretta, there was an aim to “put more things on the table” than a usual restaurant. Oretta is also an event venue hosting corporate parties and private VIP Chef Experiences. “I identified a shortage of downtown restaurants that had event space. We understand theatrics and added a Presentation Kitchen upstairs, so people can see who is preparing their food, and it works so well for social media sharing,” says Mele.

In charge of that food aspect is executive chef Gabriele Di Marco, a man comfortable in charge of a busy kitchen or commanding the centre of the main room while speaking with his diners.

A native of Sicily, Italy, his love of discovery with food found him foraging for porcini mushrooms and wild asparagus as early as eight years old. He has worked at top kitchens in southern Italy and Australia; cooked classic French cuisine on Vancouver Island and Thai food in Bangkok; and has been in Toronto for eight years as chef at The Mele Group’s Capocaccia. He understands the market well.

“In Toronto, people are busy and they are looking for a meal they could have at home,” says Di Marco. “Here, we have good food and service. It is like your mom is cooking for you, but in a more refined restaurant setting.”

Growing up in Sicily, Di Marco’s mother would be up at 6 a.m. to begin cooking lunch, then clean the dishes and begin preparing dinner. His love of cooking comes from an honest place of experience and his love of people is genuine. At Oretta, he can connect both these passions through special Chef ’s Menu and Private VIP Chef Experiences.

“The Chef ’s Menu Experience is a seven-course tasting menu, and I greet the guests at their table to tell them what they’re having and again to ask how they liked it. And yes, I’ve gotten some great feedback from those talks,” says Di Marco. “The Private Chef’s Experience we do once a month, which is very popular and is farm-to-table six courses with the freshest ingredients. My greatest pleasure is to see the expression on the faces [of the diners] as they experience the food.”

Oretta is southern Italian cooking at its very best, using the best oils, meats and produce, and leaving them in their own natural beauty. Southern Italian cooking is also emotional to Oretta’s owner.

“Southern Italian feels like home to me, where life revolves around food and family, sitting down together with other people and bringing people together,” says Mele. “It’s the art of making it together and enjoying it together.”

At Oretta on King Street West, southern Italian cooking has found a home to be enjoyed and experienced, together.

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Rick Muller

Rick Muller