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The Fiery Death of Sotto Sotto, Toronto’s Celebrity Hotspot

Celebrities and socialites young and old packed Toronto restaurant Sotto Sotto—Rihanna, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Sophia Loren… Then came Christmas Day, when a fire ravaged the venue.

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Drake is such a regular he name-dropped the place in song. Brad Pitt, popping in one night, arrived Angelina-less. Oprah, when she came, found a legion of her fans on its doorstep.

From Bieber to Beckham, they’ve all made the pilgrimage to Toronto hotspot Sotto Sotto. It’s precisely the sort of restaurant where, at any one time, one might happen upon a boldface trio sharing a table, like when Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, and Robin Williams were once eye-spied finding a shared solace in spaghetti. For some three decades now, Sotto Sotto has been Canada’s pre-eminent celebrity restaurant.

But its glory days now seem firmly consigned to history. On Christmas Day, sometime after dark, a hideous fire overtook the venue: 100 firefighters, 33 fire trucks, a four-alarm blaze. That was the extent of it during the peak of the flames, and the numbers that swooshed around in the press the next day.

Bleak images have circulated of the genteel neighborhood which housed the perennial hot spot, and from whose Victorian house-exterior paps were more used to capturing images of celebrities sated by eggplant parmigiana and/or osso bucco.

“I could see the smoke from six blocks away,” a bystander told me, as we both watched the effects of the wreckage from across the street the next morning, on Toronto’s Avenue Road. “We’d just finished Christmas dinner when we smelled the smoke,” another witness told me, describing the scene of bright, red holiday ornaments dancing upwards, carried by the surge of water hoses.

Arriving at the scene in the flesh as the fire still raged was, indeed, Canada’s most SNL-ready rapper. Drake, watching with a hood pulled over his parka, was such a regular at the haute Italian joint that he’d once brought Rihanna there at the height of their are-they-or-aren’t-they?

He’d also broken bread with Diddy there, and another night, still, got stuffed with a whole passel of Raptors players. (Not for nothing, he once squeezed out the lyrics, “Sotto Sotto, talkin’ vino and women,” on his third album, Nothing Was the Same.) Posting a pic on Instagram later, the musician lamented, “Damn. My second home.”

While the mystery of the blaze deepens—investigators quickly deemed it “suspicious”, with many wondering out loud about the timing of the fire on a day when the restaurant was clearly closed—the tragedy also constitutes an abrupt good-bye to a place many a somebody deemed a home away from home, earning it a place in the Little Black Book of showbiz nomads.

New places came. Some went. But people have always liked, and will like, the idea of a “sure thing.” And the celebs, meanwhile—with so much film and TV production happening in the city—also shimmed throughout the rest of the year, celebs essentially being gypsies, and liking the idea of a “Cheers” when they plop into a town, whether it’s a Sotto Sotto, in Toronto, or, say, a Zuni’s Cafe, in San Francisco.

While there had been frenzied hot spots in Toronto before— Bemelmans, in the 1980s, was an early standard-bearer, a gush that regularly drew the stars of comedy show SCTV, and in-vogue stars like Cher and Tom Selleck—Sotto Sotto coincided with the rapid ascent of Toronto, one that now finds it the fourth-largest city on the continent, behind Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles.

The last few years, meanwhile, have seen the rise of gold-plated brands from elsewhere landing in town (David Chang’s Momofuku, as well as Toronto’s own Soho House), the rise of new-generation darlings like Buca and Bar Isabel, but also—thrusted by an increase in rents, a spat of condo developments, as well changing notions in dining—the loss of several iconic restaurants, like one-time people-watching oasis, Bistro 990. In that context, Sotto Sotto was one of the all-out survivors.

How did its fame happen? And how did it stay “hot” when so many spots sputtered? For one, Sotto Sotto’s own rise worked in tandem with the outright explosion over the years of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Held every September—when 300-plus “names” stroll into town, and all the major studios field their Oscar hopefuls—the festival, for many, became synonymous with Sotto Sotto’s Lestat-lighting and subterranean je ne sais quoi.

The front entrance of the restaurant told the story, its walls propping up photos of its celebrity patrons like in one of those eateries you find in a lane-way coming out of the Piazza San Marco, in Venice. Ewan McGregor. Natalie Portman. Emma Stone. Colin Farrell. Marion Cotillard. Claire Danes. Sophia Loren. Jake Gyllenhaal. Gary Oldman. Jon Hamm. Jodie Foster.

Getting more publicity in a week than most restaurants could ever dream of, the restaurant was able to carry over that heat for the rest of the year, translating into the continuing patronage of local poobahs and dowagers—fixtures of society like Prime Ministerial scion Ben Mulroney and wife Jessica, urban theorist Richard Florida and wife Rana, and gold baron Peter Munk and his flock.

Any restaurant with a sustained fame ends up becoming a set, of sorts, and on that front, Sotto Sotto cinched it. It’s where we recall Mary J. Blige broke into song (an a capella ‘Happy Birthday’ for a friend), and where Lindsay Lohan came and behaved herself, while in town shooting Mean Girls. Such eateries also become prisms of the real-life love arcs of celebrities: both Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds came to Sotto Sotto separately before they’d yoked together.

Famously, the restaurant did not have a bar, so often celebs waiting for a table would be on full display, as was the case one night with Joshua Jackson and Diane Kruger.

Will the pageant go on? The family behind Sotto Sotto says that they plan to rebuild, but an insider tells me it may be a while. “I’m heartbroken,” says the venue’s owner, Marisa Rocca. And she is not alone.