For Antonio Bilotta, food is about connecting people and communities together. He's been a part of Edmonton's food scene since his childhood in the '80s when his family ran A1 Submarine and Burgers and Edmonton's first food truck, G&N Submarine and Burgers. Later, Antonio turned his passion for coffee and his Italian heritage into Edmonton mainstays like Da Capo and Rosso.
Antonio is deeply passionate about perfecting his craft, but he's equally, if not more, concerned about having people pause to enjoy a moment together. I've witnessed conversations like the following too many times to count at Antonio's caffes and restaurants over the years:
Customer: "Hi, I'd like a cappu…"
Antonio: "Wait… wait… wait. First, things first… How are you?"
Customer: "…ummm. I'm well. Thank you."
Antonio: "Wonderful. Now, what can I get for you?"
I've seen short exchanges like these completely change a person's mood as they walk away from the counter with their cappuccino. A connection—even a brief one with a stranger behind the espresso machine—can make a big difference in someone's day.
When Antonio started work on his new restaurant, Al Centro, he had a strong vision for his community. He dreamed of creating a place where guests could pause with a coffee in the morning or gather after work with friends and colleagues for an aperitivo. Groups would enjoy a bite on their way to a show in the arts district, greeted by familiar faces.
These days, with his doors now temporarily closed because of Covid-19, Antonio's vision is on hold, or at least altered. During this time of crisis, connection is all about time at home with family. Al Centro has pivoted and innovated quickly to create new dishes in larger packages to make life easier for families navigating a very challenging time.
Antonio and his new restaurant, Al Centro, were big motivators for me in helping to get Things that are Open off the ground. The doors may be closed, but Antonio, his team, and his family are still making great food that brings comfort when we need it most.
We had the chance to talk recently to Antonio about changes to his business:
When life gives you lemons, serve lemonade. Better yet, serve Limoncello.
If you're going to hunker down in your home, you better eat well. I thought, why not do lasagna—it's the ultimate comfort food. And from there, we thought we could give people more items to round out their week. The Penne al Forno is one of my favourites and has been my personal Saturday dinner for the past few years.
We wanted to feed some other mouths and our own at the same time. I also want to take some of the stress off of people right now. Everyone has enough worries in a time when all these external stresses have compounded. We want to take cooking off that list of strains. It lets us look after you for an evening while you simply enjoy a comforting meal at home.
Our family has come together to help as we cook and prepare dishes for delivery and pickup. There was a day recently when my wife, parents, nieces and nephews, and the whole crew were folding pizza boxes to pitch in. There have been days when we're all together cooking when we've been able to break for lunch, open a bottle of wine, enjoy each other and then get back to work.
We've accelerated a part of the business that we wouldn't have otherwise. Our catering menu has rapidly grown as we've created new dishes to serve larger groups of people who are stuck in their homes. Instead of selling a slice of pizza or a salad, it's a whole lasagna. We've learned a lot that will make us better when this is all over.
We'll keep coming out with new featured dishes to keep it interesting. Right now, it's a playground in terms of ideas. Maybe Ravioli is next. Look for an order-ahead app coming soon to make it even easier.
The most Italian thing that you can do is bring food to your friends, family, neighbours. Especially to the elderly in your family and circle of friends.