A classic downtown restaurant reinvents itself.
Even at 9 a.m., Tomasino’s smells amazing. The small entryway feels intimate even before my morning coffee, although nobody is in sight. After some rustling in the kitchen, a head pokes out. There is a welcoming grin of owner and operator Tom Vacon. “I’ve got some sauce on,” he says.
Nestled on the bottom floor of a historic building in the heart of Halifax, Tomasino’s is rich in both history and spirit. The first version, opened by Vacon in 1989 in the North End, was exclusively take-out. After an increase in popularity, he moved to the current South Street location and into full dinner service. Here he operated a thriving business for almost a decade. Eventually, he sold the restaurant, only to watch from afar as it began to slide, even suffering fire damage in 2010.
Recently, however, Vacon has reacquired his baby and is ready to pick up where he left off, starting with some redecorations, renovations and a hefty injection of soul. Not wanting to ruin the natural ambiance of the restaurant, Vacon is relying on its natural charm and integrity to regain success. The exposed, original stone walls (circa 1879), soft lighting and piano player on Fridays and Saturdays create what Vacon says “was and will be the most romantic restaurant in Halifax.” (In the old days, you could scarcely go there on the weekend without witnessing a wedding proposal.)
Honesty and integrity is what Vacon insists makes Tomasino’s unique. “Everything here is genuine,” he says, showing the vine-ripened tomatoes delivered that morning. As a true Nova Scotian, Vacon strives to bring the beauty and history of the province into his restaurant, purchasing from and supporting local businesses whenever possible.
Staff loyalty alone speaks volumes for the restaurant. “Everybody who works for me right now has worked for me before except one—but his father worked for me,” he says. Manager Pat Sweeney has been at the restaurant for three and a half years, and marvels at the transition back to the original owner. “I definitely notice a trend with the way everything is going; it’s uplifted, the spirit of this place is back,” he says.
Aside from staff, it’s the customers that truly make Tomasino’s come alive. “[They] are the best,” Vacon says. He’s confident the old regulars will return. As he rattles off the names of his regular customers, there is a genuine sense of mutual respect between clientele and house, stemming from simple and genuine quality. Vacon insists that “we’ve had people from every major city in North America tell us this is the best pizza they’ve ever had. Chicago, New York, Montreal, name any major city—they’ve said it.” And Sweeney agrees, adding that “longtime customers are calling and saying the pizzas [now] are the best they’ve ever had from here.”
This fame among clients stretches further to the variety of awards Tomasino’s has under its belt. His answer to why his pizza is so special? “You feel our pizza when you eat it,” he says, “and I’m bringing it up a couple of notches.”
Ben Boudreau, Halifaxmag.com restaurant blogger and community manager for Yelp.com, believes the spot has a loyal customer base. “Tomasino’s is definitely one of those businesses that you’ll see Haligonians rooting for,” he says. “I think the reopening will be great for longtime fans and complete the South End pizza trifecta.” Fans can expect to see most of their old favourites on the menu, as well as a few new items and an extended organic wine and beer menu.
“I don’t want to come off as arrogant,” says Vacon. “Well, I’m French so I can be a bit arrogant.” The exceptional confidence in his business and craft is clear as he gives a tour around the renovated dining room and elongated kitchen. He stops at the bubbling pot of sauce and gives it a few stirs, sampling and nodding in approval.
The final question for Vacon is: Is it Tomasino’s or Tomavino’s? He laughs and explains that the original Tomasino’s (named after him) changed to Tomavino’s after a copyright infringement, adding that the names are interchangeable.
“And ‘vino’ means wine,” he says.