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To enter Joso’s is to step back in time when the classical and ancient world of the sun and sea collided to form a collage of colors that still inspires the mind and the senses. This legendary Yorkville restaurant, a gem that first opened its doors in 1977 and was the inspiration of legendary artist, singer, sculptor, photographer, chef and restaurateur, Joso Spralja, is reminiscent of lazy days spent by the Dalmatian coast – the rock, wind and colours of Joso’s native land. Everything about Dalmatia is so vividly present in the collage of art that fills the walls and beckons with a story yet to be told. The other artwork that catches the eye are the row upon row frames of celebrities who have dined here over the years – and all of these have a story to tell as well.
Joso Spralja, the legend behind the name, was a 32-year old immigrant from then Yugoslavia (now Croatia), when he first cut a dashing figure on the hip Yorkville scene in the early 1960’s. A seasoned opera singer, classical guitarist, chanteur and artist in his native land, he met his match in Israeli singer Malka Himel, following a legendary meeting at the infamous coffeehouse known as Yorkville 71 (a plaque still stands on the Yorkville spot to commemorate this legendary institution). While Joso sang, Malka taught him a variety of songs, and before long the two made their official debut at the Lord Simcoe Hotel. Not long afterwards, they appeared at the Mariposa Folk Festival and continued singing together at Toronto folk and supper clubs until they landed a regular gig as hosts of the CBC-TV series “A Wonderful World of Music” in 1966.
The show, which was cleverly broadcast right after the Saturday night evening hockey game, allowed Canadian audiences a greater glimpse at this dynamic singing duo and their popularity began to soar, so much so they earned the nickname ‘the Canadian Sonny and Cher.’ In between, they appeared together at Carnegie Hall, the Johnny Carson show, and later recorded numerous albums before splitting to pursue solo careers. The rest is history. Joso became a restaurateur and Malka returned to CBC radio work before eventually moving back to Israel where she has written numerous books and recorded more music.
Following their split, Joso busied himself with the demands of a growing family and a busy restaurant – and even busier location – and watched as Yorkville grew into a posh and trendy area that eventually became known for stargazing, especially during film festival time. Whether it was its prime location (at the corner of Davenport and Avenue Road) or the tantalizingly fresh Dalmatian and Venetian seafood dishes for which the restaurant is known far beyond the confines of Toronto, one thing is certain: to dine at Joso’s is an unforgettable experience and is reminiscent of hedonistic days spent cruising the Mediterranean (think Capri, Ibiza, Dubrovnik or Sorrento in it’s heyday) while brushing elbows with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly or Frank Sinatra, some of whose signed photo’s adorn the walls of Joso’s.
Although Joso left Canada a few years ago to return to his native Croatia (where he is still active as an artist, singer, sculptor, chef and connoisseur of all things Dalmatian and Mediterranean), I had the good fortune to catch up with Leo Spralja, offspring of Joso and equally as charming and vivacious as his father, and his wife Shirley, a rare lady who impressed me with her charisma and grace, and that beguiling ability to laugh with one’s eyes.
Upon entering the restaurant I had little trouble figuring out who Leo might be. Well over 6 feet tall, he stood out in the way most Dalmatian men do (Croatia is well known for harvesting the tallest men in Europe) and it wasn’t just his statuesque height that gave him away. Switching comfortably between Croatian, Italian and English while shouting orders, asking questions and throwing in the rare joke, all the while communicating with his body and hands, brought back many fond memories of my own family on the Dalmatian coast and the cousins and uncles who make any trip back home an event to be remembered and treasured.
Leo has a real sparkle in his eye and a Dalmatian poet’s soul, and like his father, is an accomplished artist in his own right (following the interview he presented me with a CD he recorded with his father featuring music highlighting a variety of South American nations performed in Spanish and Portuguese). Shirley is petite and feminine, and revealed to me that when she first met Leo, she was representing the Canadian Olympic Rhythmic Gymnastic team and was introduced to him by her Bulgarian coach (I also learned he won her over by persistently wooing her with his serenading!).
A true writer never reveals the age of their subjects, but suffice it to say that Leo and Shirley have withstood the trials and tribulations of time extremely well, and their natural disposition for laughter and camaraderie has surely helped. So, too has their lifestyle. A dynamic duo, who, upon entering the restaurant, I found hard at work scurrying about and preparing for the 5:30 supper rush and all that it entails, I couldn’t help but notice the natural chemistry and connection between them. Joso had clearly left the restaurant in trusting hands.
I sat down with Leo and Shirley in an upstairs alcove and we reminisced about lazy days spent on Croatia’s stunning Adriatic coastline, over a perfectly brewed cup of cappuccino Leo had prepared for me (in this part of Europe, brewing and drinking a cup of coffee -- cappuccino and espresso especially, is considered a form of art). Shirley surprised me by revealing she was the muse present in some of Joso’s artwork which adorned the walls. Additional muses included Joso’s wife Angelina, daughter Elena, and Leo and Shirley’s two children – Marco and Olivia, who also help out at the restaurant whenever they can.
Why is the restaurant so synonymous with Hollywood stars, was what I really wanted to know. As Shirley told it, the reason was actually quite simple. Many of them continue to return to Joso’s not just because of the menu which boasts quite arguably the best seafood to be had anywhere in Toronto, but more so because of the man behind the name and that feeling of being part of a close-knit family circle.
More than anything else, it is this feature that sets Joso’s apart from the rest. “They can relax here. They feel at home here, not hounded by the paparazzi. When they come to Joso’s, they dine without the watchful gazes and stares that they would find at some of the other places in Yorkville,” said Shirley. Leo interceded and began to re-tell the story of how Marcello Mastroianni, one of the staple regulars over the past few decades and a personal family friend, would come to the restaurant because it was the only place in Toronto where he felt truly at home. “He would come every time he was in Toronto. He would sit with my father for hours and they would belt out the old songs in Italian from back home. You know, he just felt comfortable here, when he was shooting a film, he would come here night after night. Many times the restaurant would close its doors and he would then come to our house where my mother used to make him the most fantastic dishes. His absolute favorite dish was the Risotto Nero (Black Risotto made with the ink from a cuttlefish), and he loved watching my mother and father prepare it for him.”
Other celeb favorite dishes include the well known ‘Spaghetti alla Siciliana” and the spectacular Dalmatian grilled fish dishes accompanied with boiled Swiss chard and the perfect amount of olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. There are also assortments of dishes that are distinctly Dalmatian and Venetian and cannot be found anywhere else in Toronto. Of these, the most delectable are the ‘Shrimp alla Kornati,’ or Shrimp cooked in the Kornati Archipelago tradition (an 800 island national park located in the Croatian Adriatic). These are lightly floured deep fried tiger shrimp which are simply oozing with flavor!
Other must-have dishes that hail from the Dalmatian Adriatic include the ‘Calamari alla Griglia’ (grilled squid), wonderfully grilled to tenderness with olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon. Joso’s also offers ‘Fresh Fish alla Griglia,’ and I am often surprised by the superb assortment and high-quality of the catch offered on the daily menu. As a fish connoisseur, it is almost impossible to find a restaurant in the city that offers true Mediterranean red mullet or sea bass (having been born and raised on the Dalmatian coast, I can definitely separate the Atlantic variety from the ones which are European), but there they were, right on the platter. Other classics include the ‘Clams and Mussels alla Buzara,’ steamed in white wine, garlic and parsley. This dish is so characteristic of the Dalmatian coast that when I visited the island of Hvar, Croatia a few years back, I noticed that locals and glitterati alike tended to use the empty shell of the shellfish to scoop up what was left of the delectable buzara broth. Finally, one of my personal favorites, and the reason I keep coming back to Joso’s religiously is the ‘Rack Lamb Chops’, which are grilled over an open fire and dressed with fresh garlic and rosemary.
In addition to Marcello Mastroianni, the restaurant hosts a lot of other celeb regulars, “Robert de Niro, Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgewick, Laurence Fishburne, they are all here quite often. Alex Rodriguez and Kate Hudson were here just last week, and we get a lot of the sports stars and politicians as well,” said Shirley (former Prime Minister Jean Chrètien dined at Joso’s when in town). When asked which of the celebrity chefs they would love to host, their responses couldn’t be more different: Leo would love to cook for Gordon Ramsay, while Shirley’s choice was Nigella Lawson.
One of the interesting things about Joso’s is that in the past three decades the restaurant has never changed its menu. “Why change a good thing?” said Shirley, “they keep coming back because they respect and honor the consistency of our menu. The fish, the risotto, these are timeless classics and people just love that. Did you know that we were one of the first restaurants in Toronto to make fish popular? People had no clue about fish here, especially calamari, and our dishes helped change that perception.”
And tasting the dishes one can tell why. Joso’s stands out from the rest of the crowd not just in the presentation of its fish dishes, but also in the preparation. by relying on recipes which are distinctly Dalmatian and Venetian in origin and which have been passed down lovingly from one generation to the next.
I ask Leo for the secret behind his father’s Risotto Nero and in true Dalmatian fashion his eyes begin to twinkle and he twitches with a nervous excitement. Every true culinary artist will diplomatically back out of this game of wits, and Leo was no exception. What began in the kitchen, stayed in the kitchen, and the secret behind the infamous Risotto Nero was quickly dropped.
As I thanked Leo and Shirley for their time and mentioned I would be visiting Croatia and Montenegro for the next three weeks, they stirred with animation and began advising me on where to dine (and provided some fantastic tips on isolated Dalmatian swimming coves!). The evening dinner rush was beginning, and they had to ensure the kitchen was ready for the throngs of regulars and über-famous who flock here not just because of its image as a harbinger of all good things gastronomic, but also because of the sense of consistency, tranquility and familiarity that have become synonymous with Joso’s restaurant all these long years.
202 Davenport Road
Written by Mirella Radman
Photography by Sergei Yahchybekov