Mr. Matthew Tosoni pouring out steamed, foamed milk to a double shot espresso to curate a cup of cappuccino, at the OldTown Bodega Cafe on Feb. 7, 2019 (Nivedita Mohanraj/T·)

By Nivedita Mohanraj

There’s no window sign. It’s not by accident a person walks through the wooden door. Or, the tropical banana leaf wallpaper and the Victorian-looking portrait of a man might lace the curiosity, being juxtaposed to the surrounding white-winter of Toronto.

The OldTown Bodega is a modern-meets-Gatsby café, a getaway that embodies the natural routine needs of the neighbourhood. It serves up artisanal coffee, curated by its owner Matthew Tosoni, in the ground floor, and moving down to the basement, professional haircuts can be caught by Karolina Conroy- owner of Hastings Barbershop.

Stepping in through the old wooden black door, the space opens up. The alluring grand white marble countertop, a plush couch, brown leather bar stools and a wooden bench behind tables with mini cacti add pizazz. Towering over, are the mismatched collage, and grand crystal chandeliers (yes, plural, four of them). Any customer to initiate the slightest conversation about the decor will come to know that the wooden paneling embedded into the walls is actually an original set piece from the Rick Mercer Report, a popular Canadian TV show.

The OldTown Bodega isn’t the regular artsy café that the Instagram-ers walk into. It’s not the spot where business people in suits flash through for meetings and a quick bite. And it’s definitely not the overcrowded corner café that sits at every junction.

“The few intentional decisions, like the lack of signage or the organically grown decor, is what brings in people of passion, curiosity and just good old love” says Tosoni. “Since the opening, there hasn’t been one rude or anti-social customer in here”. The close proximity brought in by the small space and tone of the interiors poses an intimate setting, where visitors cannot go unnoticed and are always acknowledged.

The bible of the service sector, “the customer is always right,” doesn’t go here. Tosoni believes, “It’s all about that respect. It’s the base to it all.” What the café proposes is the ambiance of comfort and family. “The minute that stereotypical belief is practiced, there’s a change in the power-play, and that doesn’t feel natural, or driven by passion,” he says.

Mr. Matthew Tosoni pouring out steamed, formed milk to a double shot espresso to curate a cup of cappuccino, at the OldTown Bodega Cafe on Feb. 7, 2019 (Nivedita Mohanraj/T·)

On top of the counter, lies the heavy industrial source of livelihood: The grand Espresso machine. “There needs to be something analogue about the passions I dive into,” says Tosoni. With his life-long comfort of hands-on professions, from playing baseball to being camera-cast and producer in the Canadian film industry, it doesn’t do him justice to pour out cups “at the press of a button”. Cue in, the traditional, fully-manual, macchina per caffè espresso (espresso machine, in Italian), made with heavy-duty steel and rustic warm wooden handles and knobs. “Anthony, from Anthony’s Espresso Equipment, the Italian coffee-machine restorer , drove in with this vintage jeep to install it”.

The opening of the café was the initial step into the art of coffee making for Tosoni. His meticulous practice and the will to learn is what brought him to the position of being a professional barista(Yes, a professional. He’s poured nearly 8000 cups so far). It is second nature for any caffeine addict to make it their religious ritual every morning to order, for example, a classic of them all, the cappuccino. But, keeping in theme here, the affair of making this simple cup goes deeper than what meets the eye.

Audio clip of Matthew narrating his process of making a cup of cappuccino.

With all this character comes a great backstory. Traveling back five years ago, enter, Matthew Tosoni: a big married man with a ginger beard, a homeowner in Leslieville and the AD/producer of Canada’s famous Rick Mercer Report. When the reality of the ‘3-year notice’ of the show coming to an end hit, Tosoni’s next lifestyle decision included the mantra “never wanting to work for anyone ever again.” Keeping this in mind, he and his wife, Maura Grierson,  sought out townhouse properties and came across the 401 King St. E property. Wanting to be a better family man, the property made perfect sense, for the second floor transformed into their personal apartment.

Tosoni and Grierson now have a two-year-old daughter, and reside right above their cafe.

Being in Leslieville is what brought about the coincidence of the café-barbershop hybrid. At the time, Tosoni was a customer at Conroy’s Leslieville location, and it was “love at first sight.” They became close friends, and when the space opned itself up, there was barely any planning, but intuitional decision making. “One day, I texted Matt that I was coming. I drove over and dropped off the vintage chairs in the basement, and that’s all it was,” recalls Conroy.

The Hastings Barbershop in the basement is straight out of the flapper-era. The heavy old vintage barber chairs, the speckled mirror, the old spotlight and the grotesque posters all add-up to the “pop-up” that is this shop. “A barbershop is a social setting. People need to be comfortable with the space, because it’s a part of their life’s routine.” And knowing Tosoni, she religiously sorts out to keep the space friendly. “This shop isn’t like a tattoo parlor, where all the professionals are too cool and intimidating,” she explains. “It’s more of a casual, conversational service, served with a cup of greatcoffee of course.”

The OldTown Bodega falls under the line of hidden characteristic gems of the city. Bringing in the passion and effort behind simple things is the epitome of what it stands for. But, even while following the natural course of a traditional day-to-day life of the café, it wouldn’t stay true to pattern if there isn’t an occasion every now and then. Enter in, an insurance company looking to host a cozy socializer.

Following, every now and then, fingers brush along the stems of the champagne glasses. They were being aligned with care on top a gold speckled vintage tray, ready for its borrowers to lace their fingers through them. They almost resembled soldiers in line, ready to be the weapon of choice in conversation-initiation.

Rushed bodies swarm past. Adam Sylvester, the cousin, heavily sways in with a box of red and white wine bottles. Tosoni, the owner, follows him with a stack of dainty little plates. Grierson, the wife,  cautiously balances in rustic wooden boards of carefully plated Italian cheeses and ribboned prosciutto. They follow one another, placing each element on the white marble countertop. There’s something so genuinely methodic of their movements, almost like dancers, following steps but so effortless in a movement.

Just in case it hasn’t been assumed yet, they are setting up for the party.

Tosoni looks over his shoulder and informs “Oh yes! A smart chap in a suit walked in proposing to rent out the space for a private event. And I said yes.” He smiles, hearing himself say those words out loud. “You know,” he pauses.

“Sometimes, it’s just that simple.”

Their meticulous effort seems displaced by the soft colors that stream into the café by the setting sun. The bright daylight explodes into ‘golden hour’, then softening into a symphony of pinks and pastel blues, the sunset refracted by the big glass window. These colors get brought onto the scene when Grierson slyly slid over the bowls of purple grapes next to her charcuterie board.

The final adjustments get made. A quick adjust of the chairs, a little fluffing of the pillows, and a wipe down of the crumbs from all the food being presented. Lastly, as the sun finally goes down, the chandeliers get turned on. The stage is set, for a night that might bring a new life to the space that seems to be so much more.

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