There’s something about whiling away time in a café with friends while sipping a glass of wine or a cappuccino.
Just ask Anne Marie Vivani. Cafés conjure la dolce vita for the owner of Café Garibaldi in downtown St. Catharines.
They also inspired a business plan in Vivani more than 25 years ago when she wanted to bring the experiences she had in the coffee shops of Italy and France to the Garden City in 1995.
Vivani wanted to offer St. Catharines that same taste of the sweet life that left her swooning after those trips to Europe. And she wanted to do it on St. Paul Street.
“I fell in love with cafés and wanted to do the café experience here,” Vivani said. “I like to see people enjoying themselves. With a café, you’ll meet up with a friend and have a cappuccino and pastry, and chat. It was like part of me being involved with (people) as well.”
But Vivani wasn’t the only one convinced of the café’s merits in the city centre at the time. The Ministry of Transportation was in the process of moving its headquarters from Toronto to St. Catharines. Construction of the colloquially known MTO building was underway with the promise of an influx of office workers.
Cafés began proliferating downtown to cater to the lunch crowd that would come out from behind desks in search of something to eat over the noon hour. Still, Vivani had something the others didn’t: the allure of an Italian eatery.
“People were excited to see an Italian place coming in so people were expecting a full Italian restaurant,” Vivani recalled.
That was vastly different than the small, light meals Vivani originally intended to offer. But when people made habit of ordering her entire menu, something had to give.
“I thought, ‘Oh, these people want to eat.’ ”
So she let them. Within two weeks of opening Café Garibaldi with her mother and brother, Vivani switched to a full-service Italian restaurant. In hindsight, it was the best decision she could have made. She built a loyal following with many coming from Burlington and Oakville to dine at Garibaldi.
“If we had stuck with a café, I don’t think we would have survived,” Vivani said.
“People wanted something different. People wanted different options.”
Especially if it transports people to the Abruzzi region in central Italy. It’s from where Vivani’s parents hail and the culinary inspiration she channels in her menu at Café Garibaldi.
“It has the best of both worlds. We have the mountains and the sea,” she said. “So we have a lot of seafood items and meat dishes.”
Thanks to that diversity, Café Garibaldi’s scratch menu is ever-changing, and includes unique dishes that have become calling cards, including zuppa de pesce, cod stewed with peppers and tomatoes, and rack of lamb. Vegan dishes are also an option.
“We do a lot of cooking with vegetables and olive oil. We don’t do butter,” Vivani explained. “We accommodate everyone.”
That includes those who might be more in the mood for escaping to the United Kingdom than the Mediterranean. As Café Garibaldi grew its following, Vivani purchased the building next door to expand operations.
She envision a room for private functions but Vivani didn’t want to waste the space in between bookings. So in 2011, she opened it as the Savoy Tea Room for afternoon tea.
It’s one of the city’s best-kept secrets, popular for bridal and baby showers, but also for those wanting to enjoy a British cultural flagship, with scones, finger sandwiches and pastries served alongside teas and tisanes.
Given afternoon tea and Italian dining are about ritual and gathering, Vivani has made them work during a pandemic. She’s traded tiered plates and silverware, wrapping up her usual conviviality in takeout containers instead.
Last Mother’s Day, she sold 90 takeaway afternoon tea packages with flowers. She’s also started to bring the British Isles to people’s tables — at home — by adding meat pies, scones and sausage rolls sold by the piece.
People continue to escape to Abruzzi, too, through Café Garibaldi’s food. To help, Vivani added other Italian comforts, including take and bake meals such as lasagna and stuffed peppers to cook up at home and keep diners sated between their usual to-go orders of pasta, stuffed eggplant, and that ever-popular baked cod.
“People like coming into a family-owned restaurant instead of a chain,” Vivani said. “An independent restaurant was what people wanted (when I opened). And they still want it now.”