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Canada’s 150th – Importing Italy

Celebrating Canada’s 150th Birthday with heartwarming stories from our family of suppliers who chose to make Canada home.
By Shelley Boettcher

Canada’s 150th – Importing Italy

Celebrating Canada’s 150th Birthday with heartwarming stories from our family of suppliers who chose to make Canada home.

By Shelley Boettcher

Canada’s 150th – Importing Italy

Canadian businesses key to Italian Centre Shop’s success.

Genuine Italian pasta. Chocolate Easter eggs. The best artichokes and coffee and tomatoes.

Behind some of the Italian Centre Shop’s favourite ingredients are three family-owned Italian-Canadian businesses. Each has its own personality, its own specialties and its own beloved brands. And each is essential to the success of Italian Centre Shops in Calgary and Edmonton.

Gigi Importing

Like so many good things in life, Gigi Importing started with a fine cup of coffee. Kimbo coffee, to be precise — the first product Gigi founder Tarcisio Vanacore imported to Canada from Italy.

Today it’s one of Gigi’s top sellers. Partly because the Italian Centre Shop has sold more Kimbo coffee than any other Canadian outlet for the last three years in a row. Stop and try a cup, next time you’re in the cafe.

Ten-year-old Gigi (Tarcisio) in his Papa’s store in Italy

Born and raised in Vico Equense, a small town near Naples, Italy, Tarcisio learned the food business from his parents and grandparents, who owned a grocery store. But Tarisco—his nickname is Gigi—fell in love with a Canadian woman and moved to Toronto.

He didn’t forget his roots, however, and a few years after immigrating began his own company. He started small, in a 2000-square-foot garage, but he had big dreams. And when his son, Flavio Vanacore, was only 13 years old, he began working for his dad. “You name it, I’d do it,” Flavio says with a laugh.

Flavio’s father, Gigi and Mum, 1974.

A few years later, Flavio’s sister, Mena, also joined the business; she now handles administration and product development.

Their hard work has paid off. That storage space has expanded from that modest garage to a 35,000-square-foot warehouse. Flavio is now Vice President of Sales. And the list of products is considerably longer than just coffee. Kimbo is still very important, of course, as well as brands such as Chin8 Neri Italian soda, Mantova oils and spreads, Pantanella pastas, Scarpato panettone and Fabbri Amarena cherries in syrup.

The Gigi-branded private label pastas and ingredients are also incredibly popular and include everything from artichoke hearts to balsamic vinegars, capers, olives, tomatoes and more.

“We’re really focused on growing our brand,” says Flavio, “We have a lot of leading Italian brands and we’re always looking to add more.”

Excelsior Foods

The roots of Excelsior Foods go back to 1951, when a young jeweler named Giovanni Violante moved to Toronto from Mola di Bari, Italy. It wasn’t a great time to be a jeweler in Toronto, but Giovanni could see a need for a good Italian grocery store. So, he started a shop selling Italian products, the sort of things he missed from Italy.

The Violante Grocery Store was a big hit but, by 1965, Giovanni knew he wanted to do something different. He sold the store to some of his employees and started a wholesale business. It quickly grew to include a coffee-roasting business, a cheese company, even a biscuit company.

Eventually, the business became so large that Giovanni decided to split it up, so each of his children could have their own projects to work on. Excelsior Foods was born.

These days, Vito Violante, Giovanni’s son, is the CEO. And in 2004, Vito’s son, Daniel, joined the business, ensuring the family’s company will continue.

Vito says that one of the most popular products that Excelsior imports is Divella pasta — more than 100 kinds, including gluten-free options — and tomato sauces such as passata (strained tomatoes.) Then there are the Yoga brand fruit nectars, Festa Panettone, La Suissa chocolate, Parma hams and Pan Ducale Cantuccini, little almond biscotti that go so well with coffee.

Vito, proudly holding an Italian-style Easter Egg

Arborio rice, Albero Vecchio olive oils, Clemente organic olive oils, Agostino Recca anchovies and sardines, coffee, bitters and balsamic vinegars are also popular.

And Excelsior Foods is the only Canadian company still making Italian-style chocolate Easter eggs—the kind that includes a gift, a toy car, perhaps, or a soccer ball. “Our heritage is Italian,” says Vito. “And that’s what we want to introduce to Canadians.”

Falesca Importing

Ask Tania Gallina how long she’s been at her family’s company and she laughs. “Technically from birth, I guess,” she says with a laugh. “I spent a lot of time here growing up, evenings and weekends.”

Officially, however, she started working at Falesca Importing in the 1990s. But the family’s import business dates back more than five decades, when her father, Guido Tinaburri, opened a small grocery store in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Vito, proudly holding an Italian-style Easter Egg

That store grew and grew into Falesca Importing, a family-owned business specialising in top-quality European groceries, primarily from Italy.

Founder Guido passed away seven years ago, but Tania, her husband and her mother have kept the family business going. “My uncle, too, he worked here,” Tania says. “He’s retired now but he still comes by every day.”

Tania’s two children are only five and eight years old, too young to decide what they’ll do when they grow up. But just like when Tania was small, they’re already spending plenty of time at the family business.

And with brands as good as Falesca carries, why not? Many of Falesca’s biggest brands are well-known to Italian Centre Shop patrons: Colavita olive oil, for example, and La Molisana pastas and tomatoes. Then there are the Crich biscotti and crackers, De Nigris vinegars, olive oils, colomba (famous Italian Easter bread) and many more.

Sourcing great products like these is Tania’s benchmark. “If I’m not going to use it at home, I’m not going to import it,” she smiles. 

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