The miraculous recovery of a Toronto culinary icon

Three years ago, Roberto Martella suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. Last week, he staged a concert for his health-care team
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 01, 2019
Roberto Martello
Roberto Martella speaks at a concert he staged at Baycrest Health Sciences Centre, in north Toronto. (Steve Paikin)

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There were few things in life that Roberto Martella enjoyed doing more than visiting his spiritual homeland of Italy, immersing himself in much cherished cultural and culinary traditions, and then bringing them back to his hometown of Toronto.

So it was a particularly cruel blow when, three years ago this November, Martella collapsed in a friend’s apartment in Venice, having suffered a massive stroke. Even worse, since he was alone at the time, he lay motionless, in a coma, for three days.

By the time Martella’s family and friends learned of his predicament and sprang into action, everyone feared the worst. After an air-ambulance flight home to Toronto, he was admitted to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and then transferred to the Baycrest Health Sciences Centre. His family learned that he would suffer from paralysis. They speculated that intellectual impairment would be something he’d have to deal with for the rest of his life — a particularly cruel fate for a man whose brilliant and amiable personality was his calling card.

Martella, nickname “Bobby Hammer” (martello means “hammer” in Italian), was born in Toronto in 1953. In 1986, he and his family established one of the most distinctive restaurants in the country — Grano, located on Yonge Street in midtown Toronto. Grano was always so much more than just a restaurant. Musicians played concerts there. You could take Italian-language or cooking lessons there. Martella hosted formal speeches and informal debates on the biggest issues of the day, turning Grano into a salon for smart conversation. He and his wife, Lucia, lived and raised their four children above the restaurant, which was a family affair. It was typical to see at least one kid waiting on tables or bussing dishes.

But all of that stopped three years ago, after Martella essentially moved into Baycrest and began the arduous process of trying to recapture his health. The stroke left him immobilized, but, astonishingly, there was no cognitive impairment at all. The trilingual cultural impresario didn’t lose any of his ability to communicate in English, French, or Italian. Nor did he seem to lose any of his memories. It was truly a miracle.

That long journey toward recovery is by no means over. Martella still can’t walk without assistance. But, last week, he had improved enough to proclaim that the impresario was back, staging a concert at Baycrest to thank its employees for having nursed him back to better, if not complete, health.

Roberto Martello and family
Martella surrounded by friends and family at Baycrest. (Steve Paikin)

“We are so proud of Robert’s hard work — every day, every week — and the absolutely fantastic support from his community,” his sister Carla wrote in an email. (Yes, she calls him Robert even though everyone from his restaurant life calls him Roberto.)

Some of the greats from the Toronto music scene showed up to perform: Francesco Pellegrino and the Vesuvius Ensemble, brothers Roberto (upright bass) and Michael (jazz guitar) Occhipinti, pianists Elizabeth Shephard and Hilario Duran, singer Aviva Chernick (who sang in English, Ladino, and Yiddish), and Toronto Symphony Orchestra cellist Winona Zelenka. It was truly a musical extravaganza.

Martella hopes one day to be able to move out of Baycrest and into a new home, one that could accommodate the new realities of his physical condition.

“I had so hoped to be able to walk into this concert room,” Martella told the crowd two weekends ago at Baycrest. “Hopefully some day, but not today.” His physiotherapist has him walking, but only with significant supports. For now, the wheelchair is still his go-to for getting around.

“He looked great at the concert and in fine form,” Carla adds. “Sure, he wanted to stand on his own, but it’s evident that it’s coming! This is where he wants to be, with people, bringing experiences and helping us all make a connection.”

Although family members are grateful for Martella’s partial recovery, there has been one unmistakable casualty in this story. Grano is no more. The combination of his current condition and the family’s desire to attend to his needs at Baycrest has resulted in the restaurant’s closure, leaving a gaping hole in Toronto’s intellectual, cultural, and culinary scene.

It is sad that patrons are no longer able to walk into Grano — as they were for more than three decades — and see their charming host holding court at the bar, guiding guests to their tables, or handing out free bottles of olive oil just imported from his beloved Italy. Grano may be down for the count. But Roberto Martella is here to tell you he’s not.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that Martella remained in a coma after returning home from Italy.  TVO.org regrets the error.

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