A Family Affair
By day, Elena Faita-Venditelli runs one of the most original hardware stores you’re likely to come across: the Quincaillerie Dante, a family-owned Montreal institution that caters to gourmands on one side of the shop and to tradition-minded hunters on the other. A place that harks back to a time when people still made food from scratch.
By night, Elena runs a traditional Italian cooking school. The formula is simple: “I give you some recipes, I teach you my way of food — that’s all I do.”
Fifteen years ago, Elena’s daughter Cristina suggested an in-store pasta-making demonstration as a way of drawing a greater variety of people into the store, which up until the late eighties had catered mainly to the Italian and Greek families of Montreal’s Little Italy. “They’ll see you doing it and see how easy it is.” The idea proved a hit — it’s been running every Saturday at 2 pm since — and soon people were clamoring for tips on sauces to go with the pasta. In 1993, Cristina and Elena worked all summer to prepare the building next door. They launched the school in time for tomato season.
Over the years, she’s taught thousands of people, many of them busy professionals — “nurses, social workers, lawyers, their daughters; a mix of everything, really” — who came to her “with no knowledge of cooking.”
Up until recently, she was working 80 hours a week in the store and teaching 140 classes a year— at a rate of 5 nights a week through autumn, winter and spring. Though she’s cutting back on her hours at the store (after 46 years), she shows no sign of wanting to teach less. How does she do it, after working all day? “As soon as I’m around food, I have energy again, because it’s a passion for me.”
The classroom, a large ground-floor apartment with an open kitchen that looks just as cosy as yours or mine (but for the six-burner gas range), makes students immediately feel at ease.
When the class starts, Elena proceeds to chop, slice and knead away, all the while bantering with her students (many of them repeat visitors) like old friends. “I love being with people,” Elena tells me. With the help of an assistant — often her son Stefano — she will whip up four or five dishes that students enjoy at the long communal table at the end of the night, with a glass of red, of course.
Mostly, Elena makes cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients look easy. People who’ve gone home and tried it for themselves know that, yes, with a little practice, it takes no more time to make a batch of fresh pasta than to cook pasta from a box. And the taste? Heaven.
An active advocate of the Slow Food movement, Elena believes in taking the time to go to the market, talking to local suppliers and inviting friends over to help with the canning and the cooking. “I’ve always received a lot, always entertained at home, every weekend. I was brought up that way, even on the little money my family had.” In her classes, she is obviously proud of her own food heritage, brought over from Lazio, a region in central Italy, where she was born.
After more than a dozen classes and continued guidance from Elena whenever I visit her side of the quincaillerie, I now can 350 pounds of tomatoes every September without batting an eyelid, make my own sausage, produce life-altering sun-dried tomatoes — and yes, make fresh pasta at least once a week.
The least I could do is invite her over for dinner. Through her stories and reminiscences, she’s always made one thing very clear: food is about bringing people together and welcoming them into your life.
When I ask Elena for some wine recommendations, she confesses to me that she’s “not much of a drinker,” preferring, on occasion, to sip “a nice Bayley’s on ice” for relaxation purposes.
On a recent trip to Sicily with some of her students, though, she was bowled over by Donnafugata’s Mille e Una Notte, a stunningly labeled inky black Nero d’Avola with big, rich flavours, great complexity and richness of texture.
And she will admit to going for “a good Amarone” from time to time, having just enjoyed a bottle with friends over magret de canard and some fine Italian cheeses.
Her son Stefano, on the other hand, confesses to “liking a bit of everything” — from French Chablis to Niagara Reserves — and not worrying too much about what wine should go with what food.
Lucky for him, his curiosity is guided regularly by the “friendly sommelier Phil who lives upstairs.” When the mood strikes, Philippe skips downstairs, bottles in hand, and Stefano russles up a little something to eat: fresh in his memory was a “fantastic” Do Ut Des 2004 they’d had with a grilled thick-cut côte de veau. He assures me, smiling, that this Tuscan blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese was entirely suited for the job …
Quincaillerie Dante, 6851 St-Dominique, Montreal, (514) 271-2057
Mezza Luna Cooking School, 57 Dante, Montreal, (514) 272-5299
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be included on the mailing list for class schedules. Courses book up quickly on a first-come, first-served basis (end of May for Fall classes and end of October for Winter/Spring).