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A new film honours College Street, Toronto’s Little Italy and ‘European soul’

Canadian director Jerry Ciccoritti is seen here in the Little Italy district of Toronto along College Street.

Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser

Over the whir of a cappuccino maker and the sound of popping wine bottles, filmmaker Jerry Ciccoritti speaks above the din, recalling the day roughly two years ago when he had the "eureka" moment that led to him making his new film, The Resurrection of Tony Gitone, a comedy about his experience growing up in Toronto's Little Italy.

Seated at his usual table in his favourite haunt, College Street's Il Gatto Nero, the prolific filmmaker was having lunch with a friend when they got talking about aging, missed opportunities and the challenges of starting over. In other words, navigating life's second chapter at a time when change is happening so fast around them that they're struggling to catch up. Let alone fit in.

"I don't know what came over me, but I kind of got carried away, and went into a full-blown rant," says Mr. Ciccoritti, who lives a stone's throw from the Napoli-themed cafe, one of several iconic landmarks along the Little Italy strip that stretches from Bathurst to Ossington. "I was telling my friend there's now my generation of Italian Canadians who were all born here, or came over when we were babies from Italy in the 1960s and 70s, who have an obligation to pay tribute to the sacrifices our parents made.

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"Right then, I decided to make a movie that would be a tribute to a neighbourhood and to a generation of men in a cultural and emotional crisis. So I walked up to [Il Gatto owner] Carmen [Raviele], who was standing behind the bar right where he is now," Mr. Ciccoritti says, pointing to the owner. "And I asked, Can I shoot here for six days? I can't pay you anything, but I want to make a movie about how change should be embraced."

His timing was fortuitous, especially in light of Little Italy's current metamorphosis. Looking out at the College Street streetscape, he takes in the scores of new businesses that have been popping up: New ethnically diverse restaurants, arts hubs, bookstores and trendy retail shops. "I open the film with a montage of the stores along this strip. Now half of them are gone. I feel like this is the beginning of the rise of Little Italy."

Little Italy, as a brand, is something of a misnomer, since the biggest chunk of the population is Portuguese. But as older generations – Italians and Portuguese – have moved out, young, hip couples and families of all ethnicities have been coming in. Enterprising, new businesses have steadily popped up – replacing the traditional mom-and-pop shops – offering everything from art exhibits celebrating porn (the gallery Huntclub recently curated a show called With Pleasure), live music (Moskito + Bite showcases electronic, funk, soul, pop rock and jazz) and upscale sushi for 20-somethings who love the invigorated vibe of the once-sleepy area.

The trendsetting Monocle – the magazine-turned-retail operation founded in 2007 by writer/editor Tyler Brûlé – has set up shop, choosing Little Italy as its first Canadian store. (Others are in London, Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong). "We love the neighbourhood," says Emily Smith, Monocle's events manager. "It's a hub for independent businesses. There's a sense of community in the area and it's buzzy. There's also some excellent food very close by."

As longtime resident Lenny Lombardi notes: "You can't walk two steps without getting a good cup of cappuccino."

Mr. Lombardi runs the radio/broadcast company CHIN that his legendary dad, Johnny, founded years ago. "There's still a lot of 'Italian-ness' here. But the neighbourhood's moving on. There's a magic here and people who have lived or visited here develop a strong connection to it."

Jessica Piech, director of communications for another new arts hub, the Peach Gallery, says they located in Little Italy because it's fast becoming a non-homogenous alternative for culture-seekers craving diversity. "We're here because it's one of the best cultural neighbourhoods in Toronto. We're pulling people from all over the city to this space and they're coming because exciting things are happening here." On April 4, the Peach Gallery will host a gutsy exhibit called Bullet Proof, by artist Viktor Mitic, who fires rounds of bullets into canvases depicting portraits of famous people such as John Lennon, JFK and Brad Pitt.

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It's an installation that addresses the rash of recent shootings in cities like Toronto, including last summer's gang-related shooting of Little Italy resident John Raposo, who was gunned down on the patio of the Sicilian Sidewalk Café amid a crowd watching a European Cup soccer match.

"We've all heard stories growing up in the neighbourhood of brawls and vendettas. Of this guy who ran a clothing store who was mad at the shoe-store owner across the street, so he shot him in the foot," Mr. Ciccoritti says. "I believe 90 per cent of those stories happened. But in those days, the neighbourhood was very enclosed with all the Italians. Now Little Italy is exposed to the outside. Now it's wide open."

The Resurrection of Tony Gitone, about a budding Italian-Canadian actor (Fab Filippo) who is thrown a party by his older Italian friends when he returns to the neighbourhood, is basically Mr. Ciccoritti's love letter to a place that shaped him and cemented his cultural identity. His film opens Good Friday at the Royal Cinema, down the street from Il Gatto Nero.

And while it's no longer the Italian mecca it once was, he believes Little Italy will never lose its "European soul."

"Frederico Fellini used to say that the reason he always said no to offers from Hollywood was because he didn't know how an American holds a cigarette. I guess that's partly why I shot here. I know how everyone holds their cigarettes, how they walk, and how they talk. My movie isn't nostalgia. I hate nostalgia. I don't have a warm, fuzzy feeling about the old Italians in the old neighbourhood. This movie is about the inevitability of change. And the good that can come of it."

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