Plated Planet | Mezzetta | with Natalie Singer
“The secret to Mezzetta’s success lies in the sort of hospitality that Safa Nematy learned growing up as a child in Tehran.”
Mezzetta gets its name from “mazze,” the tasty, flavourful, snacking plates found in traditional Persian cuisine. Established in 1991, Mezzetta was already a going concern when Safa Nematy took it over from his friend in 1995. It has continued to thrive under Safa’s stewardship despite all the changes along the St. Clair strip running west from Bathurst Street.
Beyond the depth and wonderful variety of the menu, the secret to Mezzetta’s success lies in the sort of hospitality that Safa learned growing up as a child in Tehran, where eating was simply synonymous with “sharing a part of life with friends and family.” As a restaurateur, he treats his diners like honoured guests. With the regulars – and after all these years there are many – he is on a friendly first name basis.
Safa was born in Tehran into a typical food-loving family. His maternal aunt was a masterful cook. He recalls even as a child being enchanted by her artful use of traditional spices. Her signature dish was stuffed vine leaves. An air of nostalgia creeps over his face when he talks about being enticed into the kitchen directly upon entering his aunt’s house, encountering aromas which had him “floating like a cartoon character.”
Small ‘mazze’ plates were essential on the dining tables of Safa’s childhood. The Persian weekend runs from Thursday evening through Saturday, and the big meal for Safa’s family was Friday lunch. It was his father who would prepare a feast of kebabs, minced lamb, breads, and of course, the obligatory bevy of small plates including dips, pickles and salads.
Iranian immigration to Canada started around 1964, and grew into a full and steady stream following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Like so many others looking for political freedom and economic opportunity, Safa came in 1986, with his parents and sisters following later.
Mezzetta’s menu is broad enough to accommodate Canadian palates of all kinds, and aside from moderating the heat of some dishes, Safa remains true to his aunt and his heritage by using traditional spices to create flavours that are at once complex and deeply satisfying.
The recipe closest to Safa’s heart is Sultan’s Stew, prepared either with meatballs or vegetarian style. Persian cuisine is famous for its aromatic stews. Not surprisingly, the eggplant-based version of the Sultan’s Stew is the most popular item on Mezzetta’s menu.
The restaurant is Safa’s second home and much of what he eats himself comes out of Mezzetta’s kitchen, often shared with friends. This is really the philosophy that permeates the soul of Mezzetta: that sharing good food is a way of sharing quality time. With literally dozens of items on the menu – small plates to be shared – the simple act of choosing what to eat is an interesting and fun activity in which everyone at the table participates. Everyone is well taken care of, including vegetarians. Wednesdays evenings are especially fun and entertaining, with live music – world and jazz – adding to the welcoming ambiance of this home away from home.
Sultan’s Stew (Middle Eastern Ratatouille)
Yields: 4 to 6 servings
2 medium eggplant (about 1 to 1 ½ lb / 675g in total), cut into 1-1 ½” chunks
8 Tbsp (120 mL) olive oil (+ more for brushing)
Salt and ground pepper to taste
1 large onion, cut into 1” (2.5 cm) diced
3 small zucchini, cut into ½” (1 cm) thick rounds
3 sweet bell peppers (mixture of green and red), cut into 2” by ½ inch pieces (5 cm by 1 cm)
1 cup (250 mL) chopped canned tomatoes with juices
1 Tbsp (15 mL) tomato paste
1 tsp (5 mL) garlic powder
½ tsp (2mL) each – turmeric, ground coriander seed
- Preheat broiler to high.
- Line large baking tray with foil. Brush generously with oil. Toss eggplant with 4 Tbsp (60 mL) oil, salt and pepper. Lay on sheet. Broil 4” (10cm) from heat, turning pieces occasionally, until browned and tender, 15 minutes. Transfer to large pot.
- Heat 1 Tbsp (15mL) oil in large fry pan over medium-high heat. Add onion. Cook, stirring until browned, 5 minutes. Transfer onion to pot with eggplant.
- Add 1 Tbsp (15mL) oil to pan. When hot, add zucchini. Cook stirring, until browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to pot.
- Repeat the process with remaining 2 Tbsp (30 mL) oil and bell peppers.
- Stir tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic powder, turmeric and coriander into vegetables. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, 30 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.
Natalie Singer is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, foodie and former world traveller. She is the co-owner of a new natural products discovery service called Nutrilish.