Who are the Marinara Boys? How a love of food led to a community of Italian food joints

Leandro Baldassarre, owner of Famiglia Baldassarre, and James Carnevale, co-owner of Bar Ape, pack meals for Torontonians-in-need during the pandemic. Photo taken by Nick Genova.

Conor Joerin grew up watching his friends' families stir homemade sugo – sauce, in Italian – right in their garages, at Ossington Avenue and Dundas Street West.

He was a Canadian with European roots, but the strong sense of culture ingrained in Toronto’s little Italy community exposed him to a simple, enduring value: “food is important.”

In the 1980s, Joerin’s mother left the city to open an organic farm.

“If you told an Italian mother in the 80s your mom wasn’t home, they were like, who’s cooking?” Joerin said. Often, his friends’ mothers cornered him with a mortadella sandwich in hand.

“For me, it’s the food that reminds me of this neighbourhood and of growing up in this neighbourhood,” he said.

In 2017, Joerin opened a red sauce joint reminiscent of his childhood and named it Sugo, located on Bloor Street West near Lansdowne Avenue. He served spaghetti, meatballs and oversized servings of “all the hits” on red and white checkered tablecloths.

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A post shared by Sugo (@sugotoronto)

At the time, in the same pocket of the city, Leandro Baldassarre was recreating a business-model he admired throughout the three years he spent in Italy: a bakery right on the side of the highway that served bread and pizza fresh off the production line.

Although at Baldassarre's storefront, Famiglia Baldassarre, his focus was on crafting wholesale pasta, steeped in his Italian heritage, which led to a retail front at the Geary Avenue location, known for their lined-up lunches, only available during a two-hour slot, four days a week.

Already, for a couple summers, Nick Genova and James Carnevale had been roaming around the city in a 40 square foot, three-wheel gelato truck, branded with the still-enduring name: Bar Ape. The two met in high school, both from Italian families.

“I wasn't interested in any of the heritage, a lot of that came once we were hitting our 20s,” Genova said. “A lot of it was through food.”

In 2016, the duo opened a permanent parlour and customers snaked down Rushton Road, near the corner of St Clair Avenue West, to taste their eccentric weekly flavours, like yuzu and black sesame.

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Baldassarre heard about their gelato-operation and wanted to sell tubs at his storefront, but it took time and multiple trips to Geary Avenue for lunch before Bar Ape agreed to collaborate.

As the business owners got to know each other, they decided to dine at Sugo in late 2018. At first, Baldassarre had his doubts. “These guys are serving meatballs, who do they think they are?” But he conceded and soon, Joerin was buying Baldassarre’s pasta and lathering it in red sauce.

“I was like this is the best pasta I’ve ever had, hands down,” Joerin said. “If I tried to do what he does, it would be pretty apparent pretty quickly that I don’t know what I’m doing. It wouldn’t be authentic. It’s not my narrative, it’s not my story.”

Just a few months after meeting, in January 2019, the collective of business owners hit the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn on a spontaneous pizza-eating research endeavour for Joerin’s soon-to-launch 70-seat pizzeria, Conzo’s. “I’m about to open a pizzeria and I’ve never made pizza in my life,” Joerin said.

But, he valued the instincts and knowledge of his peers and they decided to call themselves the Marinara Boys. At first, it was just a group chat name and amusing Instagram page, but it stuck.

“I think we don’t have a very conventional friendship,” Baldassarre said. “We’re a little outcast as far as restaurants go.”

On Conzo’s opening night, the Marinara Boys were there in support, with Baldassarre on the front lines of the pasta station. “It’s given us a whole other community within our restaurant community and it’s opened up all sorts of doors of people who are like minded,” Baldassarre said.

Five weeks later, the pandemic forced Toronto restaurants into a grim, months-long lockdown. With fridges full of food, Joerin started delivering groceries to anyone who was hungry or scared to leave the house. Soon, the Marinara Boys joined forces and started raising money, cooking and delivering food to front-line workers and Torontonians-in-need.

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A post shared by Marinara Boys © (@themarinaraboys)

“We all have the same ideals,” Baldassare said. “I find you kind of surround yourself with people who share a certain kind of integrity, you may not like the same things, run your business a different way, but we all kind of gravitated towards each other for those reasons.”

Now, with Toronto restaurants back in motion, the Marinara Boys see each other in bursts, still selling each other’s products, going on morning runs, coming together for muay thai, and barging into each other’s storefronts to self-serve a portion, or 10, of gelato.

Beyond their bond, they’ve also created a much wider community of shared customers who have watched their alliance grow on their Instagram pages, each amounting to tens of thousands of followers.

“The people who go to these businesses also kind of feel like they are contributing to some kind of collective,” Genova said.

“I feel like it ends up being a more fun experience when people know that there is a relationship between the business and their community.”

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Table Talk is a weekly CTV News Toronto series that explores the people who shape Toronto’s food scene, published every Friday at CTVNewsToronto.ca