Assignments followed at some of London’s most highly rated restaurants, including the venerable Café Royale and Gennaro’s in Soho, where he concentrated on Italian cooking. After two years in South America, he returned to London as executive chef at the Excelsior Hotel at Heathrow for six years, then opened the Excelsior Hotel in Hong Kong, where he remained for four years.
In the three years that followed, he cooked at London’s Grosvenor House, moved to New York for a stint at the Hotel Pierre, then worked at the Nassau Beach Hotel in the Bahamas. (After the grand, airy hotels of Europe, he would later think it scandalous that restaurant tables in North America were so close together).
His talent drew the attention of the owners of Toronto’s venerable King Edward Hotel, who hired him in 1981 to help reopen the venue. But there was a falling out between the parties, and since Rota had bought a house in the city, he accepted an offer from the Windsor Arms Hotel.
As The Globe’s Kates noted, little happened at the time in Toronto haute gastronomy that was not either at the Windsor Arms or directly influenced by its chefs. Even before Rota’s arrival, the hotel’s Three Small Rooms, opened in 1966 by George Minden, was “the most important restaurant in Toronto.”
In 1985, in a move that sent shock waves through foodies, Rota quit the Windsor Arms and bought Noodles from the hotel’s owners. With its prime location at Bay and Bloor streets, Noodles was an icon when it opened in 1973 as Toronto’s first Italian restaurant to go from spaghetti-and-meatballs to risotto. For a decade it was the place to be seen.
But it was dying. As Rota said at the time: “Business is terrible. At night, a party of two has a pizza and two salads and then they go home. By nine o’clock I’ve got nobody left in the restaurant.” Add to that a strike by staff, and Rota packed it in. In 1990, the Minden organization bought Noodles back from him.
Throughout that dispiriting time, Rota did his best to dispel the stereotype of the frenzied chef. “He was always very calm,” recalled Cosimo Mammoliti, owner of the Terroni restaurant chain whose first job was as a food runner at Noodles. “No matter how crazy things got, he would say, ‘Right. Let’s get it done.’ ”
Rota landed at Orso, another well-known Italian spot, but his stay there was brief. Even so, owner John Maxwell recalled “an old-school chef, insanely charming, enthusiastic and hospitable. A jewel of a man.”
He was released to open Da Dante’s in north Toronto, a bold move considering the dog-eat-dog restaurant scene in that part of the city. One critic practically went weak at the knees. “Da Dante is the repository of the Rota family’s dreams,” she gushed. “You can smell their commitment. It smells like the sharp sweetness of balsamic vinegar smoothed by the velvet of extra virgin olive oil, the bite of garlic tamed by the absorptive charms of rice and pasta. … The fried calamari crackles like glass, so crisp and ungreasy. [Rota’s] thin pizza is a triumph of the bread baker’s craft, in its flavour and crunch.”
On retirement in 1997, Rota handed over the keys to the place to his apprentice, Richard Fox-Revett, who reopened it as the Monkey Bar & Grill.
What did Rota like to eat? “If I had to choose one cuisine,” he said once, “it would be Chinese. The Chinese mode is the mother of world cooking. Others, including French and Italian, have developed from it. Its beauty is that basic Chinese cooking hasn’t changed – it hasn’t had to. It has survived the years.”
And if he had trained in the classical French style, why didn’t he cook in it?
“Believe me, this was a big debate between us,” his son Carlo related. “I believed he perceived a value in following Italian cuisine. French cuisine in its heyday ruled the planet but when in the ’80s restaurants came to the fore, French cooking retreated somewhat. He saw that Italian cuisine was the way to go.”
Carlo Rota laboured alongside his father for many years in hot, cramped kitchens and learned more than he thought about cooking and food. “But there was absolutely no way I could call myself a chef,” he said. “I could never look my father in the face again.”
Dante Rota leaves his wife of 59 years, Rina; children Carlo, Marco, Laura and Maria; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.