Arturo Comegna is a well-known Sault chef and restaurant owner with no plans to slow down.
“Not yet,” said Comegna, hospitably pouring a cup of coffee and providing a plate of biscuits when asked by SooToday if he plans to retire.
“My body tells me sometimes to retire, but my brain tells me ‘what else are you going to do?’ For 55 years I’ve been doing this.”
Comegna arrived in Canada from Casoli - located in the Abruzzo region of Italy- in the late 1970s, marrying and settling down in the Sault.
“I started working at the steel plant but it wasn’t my type of job. All I did all my life was work in a restaurant. I worked as a waiter when I was 12 years old. So I quit the job at the steel plant and went to work at Rico’s Restaurant,” Comegna said.
Comegna bought Rico’s in 1982 - aware of the long days and the risk that any entrepreneur faces - and operated it until 1990.
“I always wanted to have a restaurant since I was a kid. I liked what I did. They wanted to sell Rico’s so I bought it,” Comegna recalled.
“I was a little bit scared but not that much. I guess I was too young to worry. You don’t worry that much when you’re young. I thought ‘I came to Canada with nothing, what’s the worst that could happen to me?’ I had nothing and I would go back with nothing. But I knew I wanted to work and I liked what I did.”
“It was a lot of work and at the time the Sault was a hard town because they didn’t understand my food. I was different because I didn’t do the usual chicken and ribs, pasta and meatballs.”
Not a pizza or spaghetti and meatballs fan, Comegna is passionate and humorous in describing his own view of what Italian food is and how it should be served.
“In every region in Italy food is different from other regions. Italian food is not just chicken and potatoes.”
“True Italian food is different in every region in Italy. In the south it’s eggplant, lots of tomatoes, zucchini and oranges, while in Abruzzo there’s a lot of lamb and artichokes, and as you go north you’ve got more cheese, pork and beef,” Comegna told SooToday in a 2018 interview.
After Rico’s, Arturo opened a business called Mr. Takeout.
Takeout was not to his liking, so in the mid-1990s, he went to southern Ontario and worked outside the restaurant business, but later decided he wanted to return to his chosen profession and opened Arturo Ristorante in the late 1990s.
Opening on Gore Street - Arturo Ristorarante later relocating to Queen Street, the establishment now owned by his sons Tom and Chris - the chef eventually opened Antico Ristorante on Village Court in the middle of a residential neighbourhood north of the McNabb and Lake intersection.
“The restaurant business was a struggle at times. I didn’t change anything. I said ‘that’s what I cook.’ I didn’t want to sell pizza, panzerotti, minestrone soup. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to food, my way.”
“I think what happened in those days was that The Food Network came along and people got excited about watching food programs. And then I came along, a lot of people remembered me from Rico’s and said ‘we have a guy in Sault Ste. Marie who can do the same thing as The Food Network' and Arturo Ristorante just took off on Gore Street.”
“I like to do this. I don’t want to be anywhere else except the kitchen. I’ll do it for as long as I can.”
Comegna - and the restaurants he has owned and operated - Rico’s, Arturo Ristorarante and Antico - have become synonymous with fine Italian food in Sault Ste. Marie.
“I love it. I love it that my kids have taken Arturo Ristorante over. They're good kids. I’m proud of them.”
“My kids were getting older so I said ‘if you guys want to buy it, I’ll do something else,’” said Comegna of his choice to move on and establish Antico Ristorante.
He paints to relax.
The walls of Antico Ristorante are adorned with art, most of the colourful paintings done by Arturo himself.
“I don’t paint as much as I used to but it’s in my blood. The painting is something which makes me happy, but I’m a chef. I don’t make money with painting,” he laughed.
His personal food favourites are meat and seafood such as octopus.
Over the years, there have been a lot of wedding proposals at his classy restaurants.
“Over the years we’ve seen a lot of those. It makes me feel good that they chose us for special occasions they remember for the rest of their lives. They still tell me after 40 years ‘hey Art, do you remember at Rico’s I got engaged at table three?’ or ‘I proposed to my wife at table four.’ They still remember the table number. Now I’m serving their kids, and that makes me feel good.”
Comegna’s reputation as a chef was recognized in the Ontario Legislature by Sault MPP Ross Romano shortly after he was elected to provincial office.
“Mr. Speaker, today I am very excited to highlight an incredible constituent of mine, Arturo Comegna, owner and chef of Antico Ristorante in Sault Ste. Marie,” Romano said on that occasion.
“Arturo was highlighted by the LCBO during their Winter Recipes and Northern Ontario Chef Profile. The profile was done in a master chef competition style where Arturo’s creation was a Cornflake Crusted Arctic Char Fillet on an Apple Beet Salad, paired with a Creekside Sauvignon Blanc.”
“Mr. Comegna first got his passion for cooking at the age of 12 when he started waiting on tables and at the age of 60 Arturo’s passion for cooking is as strong as ever.”
“He is a very well known restaurateur in Sault Ste. Marie and someone that I’ve grown to really care for. I love to eat there and would welcome everybody, when you’re in Sault Ste. Marie, to come to Antico and you’ll get a great meal,” Romano said in his speech, followed by applause in the Legislature.
“That was cool,” Comegna told SooToday after viewing a video of Romano’s speech on his laptop.
No one can doubt Comegna’s work ethic.
“It’s a way of life. I can’t call in sick. Unless I’m dying, I show up. That’s the way it is. It’s a life thing. You have to perform now. Now. It’s not tomorrow or next week.”
Comegna has some strong advice for anyone wanting to become a truly professional chef.
“It takes years to be a good chef. I’m still learning after 40 years. Anyone who wants to be a real chef, I say get out of town. Go work in Europe. Get room and board, work hard and learn for five, six, 10 years, then come back to the Sault and open a really good restaurant. It doesn’t matter if the restaurant looks beautiful. All people remember is the food and the waitress who’s nice to them. Anybody who wants to be a chef, go away and learn.”
Comegna emphasized that he doesn’t plan to retire.
“When I’m ready I’ll probably just lock the door and say bye-bye,” he chuckled.