Howard Levitt: Who would think that the most erotic restaurant in Canada has such unusual individually crafted recipes?
When I was a student at the University of Toronto, more years ago than I will admit to anyone beyond my mother, I was always titillated when hearing of Joso’s. This restaurant, inaccessible to me financially, was replete with pictures and statues of bare-breasted women, a panoply of delights to a young man. Now, a bit older, the restaurant still exists and it is finally well within my means. Indeed, it’s not particularly expensive.
Joso Spralja passed away in his native Croatia earlier this month at age 88. He came here as a child prodigy having sung in the cathedrals of Yugoslavia. Speaking no English on arrival, he met an Israeli woman, Malka Himel, in Yorkville during that street’s halcyon days, who happened to know many of the same songs as he. Malka and Joso began to appear at coffeehouses, one of which Joso ultimately took over to open his first restaurant. They even appeared on Johnny Carson. Initially, they spoke through an interpreter. While their peers were singing anti-war and folk songs in the late ’60s, they were singing love songs in six different languages (none of them English). When Joso’s first opened, the CIBC branch next door objected to his male nude statue. Joso won the battle and the statue remains outside the current restaurant.
Joso’s still has pictures and statues of nudes, many of them family members, including the original owner and his progeny. The menus have photographs, circa 1950’s, including some showing Joso, in his art studio in Croatia, studying large-breasted models leaning against props. The newest piece of art, which has been there for over two years, shows a much younger, virile Joso, his daughter, a waitress who is now an L.A. casting agent, and a mystery woman — all, except for Joso, absolutely nude in the original café surrounded by statuesque art and sculptures, most of which are still on display.
Though it was the nudes that first captured my imagination, what has kept me going in the door of Joso’s is that the food is excellent.
Joso’s consistently has the best octopus in Toronto, meaty, char-grilled, succulent and sufficiently tender to cut through with a butter knife. It’s not mealy. It’s not chewy. It’s not mushy. It’s perfect. It also has the best squid in Toronto prepared the same way.
Off-menu, but consistently available, is Shrimp Amadeus with capers, white wine, brandy, garlic and parsley.
But most significantly, and one reason that Joso’s deserves this column, is that it has the best dish in Canada: Pasta Siciliana made of squid ink, chunks of cuttlefish and ingredients that will remain unknown. One of Joso’s sons, Leo, and his son Marko, come each day to make it themselves. Its risotto equivalent won an award for the second best risotto in the world in an international competition. I have tried to replicate the flavours in Croatia and Venice, capital of squid ink pasta, but never could.
They will never reveal the ingredients. A chef who worked there for almost 10 years opened his own restaurant and refused to serve it. I told him I would not attend his restaurant again unless he did. He still refused. Either he was in terror, or the family never shared the recipe — I will never know. This new chef’s restaurant closed down, perhaps because he wouldn’t cook this dish.
A totally idiosyncratic dish, intense and potent, you can taste and smell the sea. It may look like charcoal molten lava, but if you like intense flavours, it is exactly what you want. I have learned to order extra sauce, but the rule is that if it looks even slightly less than wildly moist, ask for extra sauce. Like many very good restaurants, they note customers’ food preferences in their computer. As result, the extra sauce is automatic when I arrive. That’s how on top of customer service Joso’s and its maître d’ Paul Gyulay is.
Who would think that the most erotic restaurant in Canada has such unusual individually crafted recipes? The pasta is spaghetti from Italpasta owned by Toronto’s (and Joso’s frequent patron) Joe Vitale.
Joso’s art and sculpture and much of the art is his own. His wife, Angiolina, created the menu based on food that they knew from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Leo has taken over, with his wife, and has made the restaurant idiosyncratically a homage to himself, his father and his family. It is a fitting tribute.