Shirley and Leo Spralja, who sit side by side on our Zoom call, talk excitedly — and often across each other — as they share anecdotes, tidbits and even memorabilia from the last half century. At one point, Leo picks up the laptop to walk me around the restaurant, pointing out sculptures, old menus and even an eye-popping, not-safe-for-work portrait of the family as semi-clothed Grecian gods and goddesses. Even after all this time, they’re brimming with enthusiasm as they usher me into their world — one of the best restaurants in Toronto that’s been operating in Yorkville since 1967.
Running a restaurant wasn’t plan A for Leo’s parents, Joso (pronounced yo-so) and Angiolina. Joso, one half of a famous singing duo touted as the “Canadian Sonny and Cher,” spent much of his life travelling the world and performing with his singing partner Malka on The Johnny Carson Show and at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Then, at the end of his career, while pondering alternative employment for his twilight years, he found a café for lease at 71 Yorkville Avenue.
“So many friends absolutely adored Leo’s mother’s [Angiolina’s] cooking,” remembers Shirley. “They said, ‘You must open a restaurant’ — and that was the spark.”
When the café was demolished in 1977, Joso’s graduated to a forever home where they could expand their offerings and create a full menu of Dalmatian cuisine. The Victorian semi-detached on Davenport Road has welcomed Toronto residents and countless visiting celebs in the decades since. Drake, who has been visiting the restaurant since he was a boy, has rapped about the Yorkville institution and even featured a photograph of himself dining at Joso’s on the cover of his album “Take Care.” As far as backdrops go, it’s a pretty good one.
“We have a very different sort of vibe ... I’ve pinned it down as being almost a gallery restaurant,” says Shirley of the eclectic design. It’s true that Joso’s defies pigeonholing. While I knew of the restaurant and the eccentric statue outside, I am charmed to discover the beating heart at the centre of this upscale family-run spot. Plus, having a menu so closely linked to the owners’ heritage is a rarity in this city.
“The menu is what you would get if you went to the Croatian coast, specifically to the islands where Joso was born. It is seafood of the highest quality,” beams Shirley.
Though commonplace today, calamari, clams and grilled octopus were the height of delicacy dining for Torontonians in the 70s. “It’s a space where we introduce you to the coastal cuisine,” says Shirley. “We keep it as authentic as possible. You’re eating the fish off the bone, eating the clams from the shell. It’s touchy feely. We want to make people feel very comfortable in a landlocked city like Toronto.”
In a world of shiny new things, what has given Joso’s so much staying power? “We all want to go out and feel like we’re at home and welcomed,” says Shirley. She credits this as the reason why so many famous TIFF visitors and actors shooting in Hollywood North have found their way to Joso’s over the years: Spike Lee, Harrison Ford and Danny DeVito have all tucked into grilled fish and octopus in peace and quiet. “That’s why Toronto itself is an amazing city, because they see someone famous and they don’t get in their face.”
Consistency is another marker. In the 46 years since Joso’s began serving Croatian dishes with a Northern Italian influence, their menu, and even their ingredients, have changed very little. “We use suppliers that we’ve had from opening day,” admits Shirley. There are no gimmicks. No bells and whistles to hide behind. Just good quality food, cooked simply and with love. Here’s to the next 46 years, Joso’s.
Whole Grilled Fish
“You’re introduced to the selection of fish that we have on that day. Then it’s grilled whole and presented to the table. We have a number of species that we feel are viably brought to the food markets of Toronto … branzino, orata, scorpion fish, John Dory, dover sole or halibut, so there’s a nice little variety — because you want to hit all the bases for people with flavours. It’s always grilled with olive oil and sea salt. And lemon is left to the discretion of the guests. We are not heavy-handed — we want you to taste the flavour of the fish.”
Calamari alla Kornati
“The name Calamari alla Kornati comes from the Kornati islands in the archipelago off the coast of Croatia. This is how they prepare the calamari. We have lost suppliers along the way — it’s very hard to find exactly the type of squid you want, that is to the taste that Leo’s family would want. We’ve shopped the world for squid, so we have our favourites but we always buy it unprocessed. It is made from scratch — it comes frozen straight from the sea and we take it all apart and clean it. Then either we grill it or we cut it up in rings, dredge in flour and deep-fry it in oil. A little bit of sea salt on top — that’s all you need.”
Spaghettini alla Siciliana
“The Spaghettini alla Siciliana is absolutely black in colour. It’s an acquired taste from the sea, made with garlic, wine, parsley with onions as the base. I’ve got to be careful I don’t give away family secrets! Joso’s wife, Angiolina, who originally made it, taught Leo to make it, and he took over and now our son is making it. It’s made after hours. The squid and cuttlefish are brought in whole from a particular place in the world — and the ink sacs are extracted. So it’s very hands-on, very from-nature. In this world of processed food, this is as natural as you’re going to find it. The meat of the cuttlefish, as well as the squid, are ground up like hamburger and diced very small, then cooked very slowly and simmered. Then the ink is added [to the pasta] and it becomes black.”
Clams and Mussels alla Buzara
“Mussels are usually from the East Coast, and the clams we usually get West Coast Manila clams. We’ve tried it with little, tiny clams — wherever we can get them. We love to experiment. It’s a very traditional dish, I think the French do it with white wine, garlic and parsley. But our title is Buzara, which is the style of northern Venice — that sort of influence was brought to the coast of Croatia. Buzara is a Venetian word for the cauldron in which the fishermen would cook this giant soup. When Leo was born, in the 1950s, the whole coast of Croatia spoke a Venetian dialect with a lot of influence of Venetian cuisine along the coast. Hence, there’s a crossover in cuisine.”
Palačinke with Apricot Jam
“Palainke — or Croatian pancake — is pronounced pa-la-chin-ka. They’re just crepes, very simple, with apricot jam. They’re rolled or folded and brought to the table. You can have a little espresso or cappuccino with your dessert. It’s not filling or rich — just a nice way to finish your meal. And, again, a very classic Croatian dish.”