Standing on a corner in Montreal’s Little Italy, it’s hard not to see the influence of the Faita family.
Along Rue Dante, family members run several restaurants in Montreal, including Impasto and Pizzeria Gema, Mezza Luna Cooking School and, of course, the place where it all began, Quincaillerie Dante, the city’s iconic kitchen supply store, where one can find anything from pasta making machines and other appliances to cookery, knives, cutlery and recipe ingredients, and even firearms and hunting supplies.
Elena Faita, Pioneer of Montreal’s Little Italy
The matriarch of the family, Elena Faita, is a living legend in Montreal. She is considered a fixture not only in Little Italy but in Montreal’s thriving culinary scene.
Elena moved to Montreal, Quebec from Italy at the age of seven as her mother was working for a Quebec farmer at Marché Jean-Talon, the city’s oldest public market in the heart of Little Italy. The family became part of the first Italian generation to work at the market and one of the pioneers of the neighborhood.
They lived across the street and Faita’s long-term relationship with fresh food and produce began. Later, coupled with a curiosity and know-how in the kitchen, she would become a chef.
In the meantime, Faita and her family quickly immersed themselves in the Quebec culture.
Quincaillerie Dante in Montreal
“My father and brother opened the first Italian hardware store, Quincaillerie Dante, in Montreal, in 1956,” says Faita. “I started working at the store when I was 14 years old and the whole family was involved in the store in some way.”
Since many Italian immigrants worked in the construction industry at this time, Quincaillerie Dante provided their materials and supplies. However, the store continued to evolve over time based on demand.
In 1962, a firearms counter was added to cater to Italian hunters, but this also brought in many French Canadians, who also enjoyed the sport, consequently welcoming a new clientele.
After learning the ropes of the business, Elena took over the hardware store with her siblings in the 1980s, and her passion for cooking slowly wove its way into the store. She began to talk about cooking, sharing tips and recipes with the customers, and over time, they began to replace the hardware tools with home and kitchen items.
However, staying true to their Italian roots, the products sold at the store were items immigrants may have parted with when moving to Canada, such as pasta makers, presses, pans and more.
“In addition to offering cooking supplies, we would hold demonstrations every Saturday at 2 p.m., showing customers how to make their own fresh pasta and other Italian cooking techniques,” says Faita. “This resonated greatly with the French-Canadian community.”
Mezza Luna Cooking School
The demand for these products at the store boomed, as did interest in Faita’s knowledge in the kitchen. Montrealers were eager to learn more and as the store continued to thrive with the new offerings, Elena was inspired by her daughter to open Mezza Luna Cooking School in 1993 as a place to host cooking courses and conduct chef demonstrations.
To start, the school offered 40 lessons, but word spread as Faita began to appear on culinary television shows.
Famous Chefs in Montreal
Mezza Luna welcomed many of Montreal’s most famous chefs to learn from Faita. Notable students include Frederic Morin of Joe Beef, Liverpool House and Vin Papillon, Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon and Cabane a Sucre, and Marc de Canck of La Chronique, to name a few.
Among the chefs inspired by Elena was also her own son, Stefano. Eager to pursue his own culinary career, Stefano joined Elena on television appearances before becoming a television chef personality on his own, as well as a four-time cookbook author and restauranteur.
Just across the street from Dante, Stefano Faita runs Impasto, which offers rustic Italian fare, and Gema Pizzeria serving pies with local, seasonal ingredients and frozen custard. Stefano also expanded his empire by commercializing his own pizzas, which are sold across Canada and the United States.
Today, Mezza Luna has expanded to offer between 60 and 170 lessons each year, and several renowned chefs from the city give lessons there in various cuisines. And, of course, Elena still offers Italian courses and aims to inspire a generation of young people to settle down as chefs, restauranteurs, grocer-shopkeepers and more, while also promoting products of Quebec.
And, in case you are wondering what Elena considers to be the most essential items in your kitchen, “a scraper and a mezzaluna, both available at Quincaillerie Dante!”