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New Entrepreneurs Reviving Downtown Windsor's Chatham Street

Sunday, June 25, 2017

ANNE JARVIS, WINDSOR STAR

Published on: June 25, 2017 | Last Updated: June 25, 2017 10:01 PM EDT

It’s 7:30 a.m., and David Prantera is rolling gnocchi at his new restaurant, Bread Meats Bread, on Chatham Street East. In his other new restaurant on Chatham, called Burger Farm, French fries are soaking in brine to infuse the flavour.

Across the street, Sandro Giustini is making his own potato chips in his Chatham Street Delicatessen. It takes him three to four hours, but he says, “it separates us from everyone else.”

On the other side of Ouellette Avenue, Enaya Abukamil and her son, Mohammed, make lentil soup in their new restaurant, Mira Middle Eastern Flavours. 

A new group of young and engaging entrepreneurs committed to downtown are resuscitating a street that had been a ghost town.

“We believe in a strong urban core,” Prantera said, speaking for his partners. “Look at any large centre. The successful ones have vibrant downtowns.”

Opening amid the vacant and blighted buildings is risky, he admitted, but “I believe if you put good things in places, people will come.”

Prantera, who grew up in Windsor and graduated from the culinary program at St. Clair College, had been an executive chef at five-star hotels in Dubai.

Then he returned home and told his wife, Silva, “It would be great to use fine dining techniques in sandwiches.” 

They saw the building at 33 Chatham St. E., and “we fell in love with the space,” he said. In the heart of downtown, in an old building with character, “it’s a great location,” agreed partner George Chaker.

It’s more than 125 years old, with the original red brick and stone wall and terrazzo floor. Prantera and Chaker budgeted $30,000 for renovation. It cost $60,000. They planned two months for the work. It took five. Chaker, a construction worker, put in the kitchen, gutted the bathroom and rewired the electricity, all while working his regular job. 

Bread Meats Bread finally opened in December.

Prantera is Italian, and his menu is Italian street food. In Italy, it’s served from food trucks. Most of his ingredients are local, and he makes almost everything himself. His meat comes from a butcher in Tilbury, and the peppers for his hot sauce come from Leamington.

His signature is called the Italian Job. It’s porchetta, pork wrapped around herbs and spices, with the crisp skin mixed in and gremolata, a condiment made from lemon zest, garlic, parsley and anchovy.

Bread Meats Bread also serves three local craft beers, rotating different breweries. It also serves five flavours of craft soda from The Pop Shoppe, which used to be in Windsor but now comes from Burlington.

“I just thought cool because it’s nostalgic, right?” Prantera said. “I wanted to be unique to Windsor, and it was hugely popular in Windsor. People always tell us stories like, ‘My parents used to buy the green one.'”

Even the art on the walls is local.

Burger Farm, at 21 Chatham St. E., opened last week with a cool retro sign. The milk shakes are made with custard.

“It’s a richer shake, and everyone needs a richer shake,” said Prantera, who has a minority share in the business.  

Chaker, who grew up downtown, wants what Detroit has — small, interesting restaurants serving local beer and food on vibrant streets, art and young people. Chatham Street can be like that, he said.

“It used to be the place to be,” he said.

Bread Meats Bread and Burger Farm are the third and fourth restaurants to open in two and a half years on the block east of Ouellette.

Giustini was the first. He’d always wanted to be a chef. He grew up on Erie Street, cooking with his grandfather, who owned a deli. Giustini’s mother worked at the deli, and he spent his summers sitting on the counter. He got his first job at 14, as a dishwasher at Da Luciano Ristorante on Hall Avenue, and went on to study at Kendall College Culinary School in Chicago.

People warned him not to open his first deli downtown.

“It’s like a dead zone,” they said.

But he saw a need. 

“There was no place to get really high quality sandwiches,” he said. “You need that for lawyers, judges, police officers.” 

Then he saw a story about the university’s plan to transform the old Windsor Armouries and the former site of Tunnel BBQ, and he envisioned students.

Before he had even opened, passersby were peeking in the window.

He was right. City officials and judges are regulars. City CEO Onorio Colucci orders the same sandwich — a tuna melt with spicy havarti and pickled vegetables — every other day. It’s called the OC now. 

Giustini’s specialty is Italian beef. He roasts it himself. His bread comes from Blak’s Bakery in Windsor. It’s still steaming when he gets it every morning. His mother, Adele, makes the lemon cookies and macaroons. 

“It was really nerve-wracking,” he said of opening there.

There were only two businesses on the block at the time.  

But, he said, “we took a shot.”

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I’ve got something really good,” he said.

It has been difficult. He, his wife and his mother did everything, including sweeping the cigarette butts off the sidewalk every morning, until they hired their first, part-time employee a year ago. 

“This is a big thing for us,” he said. “We’re putting ourselves out for this.”

Sometimes, he feels alone, he said.

He needs more people downtown to make his business more sustainable.

Still, he said, “it’s so exciting to think you could be the first. You hope you can be part of something at the ground level, you can look back and say, I took a shot.”

Instead of competing, Prantera, Giustini and veteran restaurateur Mark Boscariol, who owns Snackbar-B-Q on Chatham Street, are jointly marketing the block east of Ouellette as a food destination.

“The point is to bring people to Chatham Street,” said Boscariol. 

Barbara Amato has operated Obsession Hair Design on Chatham for 30 years. She remembers when it was full of Americans and limousines.

“It was so much fun,” she said.

But after the terrorist attacks in the United States, the street died. Amato’s business was the only one left.

Now, with the four new restaurants and the nearby university and college campuses, she has already noticed more young people and professionals. She’s hiring two people to handle walk-in business. 

“Oh my God! I could cry I’m so happy!” she said.

“People are going to want to be downtown,” Chaker predicted. “It’s going to get there.” 

ajarvis@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/winstarjarvis