It’s not hard to see how Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood got its name. Walking down College Street on a summer evening or a Saturday afternooon, passing the bars, pausing at a trattoria, buying a gelato or an espresso, visiting the shops. It’s a taste of Rome in the heart of Toronto. And if something like World Cup of soccer is on, the neighbourhood becomes a madhouse of Azzuri supporters. And the best part is that this area of Toronto isn’t just for Italians, it’s a treasured part of the city for everybody.
Even residentially, Little Italy has adopted Toronto’s multicultural ethos. The area is now also heavily populated by Portuguese residents and those from Latin America, especially Brazil. The result is that the area, already vibrant, has become even more mixed and intriguing.
Bordered roughly by Bathurst Street on the east, Dundas Street West on the south, Ossington Avenue on the west and by its crown jewel, College Street, on the north, Little Italy has become a centrepiece for many of the city’s favourite restaurants, cafes and bars, especially along College and around Ossington. But the area is also home to many families in the many Edwardian homes populating the sidestreets, originally built in the 1900s and housing an influx of Italian immigrants arriving to work on the railways or in construction beginning in the 1920s. Today, the area is also home to a growing population of young professionals and students, attracted by the convenient location, the vibrant nightlife and the effervescent and multicultural nature of the neighbourhood.
History and Social Profile
College Street — which takes its name from King’s College, the original title of the University of Toronto — began to be laid out in 1842, and following the grant to the city of the land that would become High Park in 1873, began to be extended west through the area that today is known as Little Italy. Around the turn of the 20th century, buildings began to be constructed along the street. And by the 1920s, many of the arriving Italian immigrants — who were finding employment on the railroad or in the city’s bustling road construction industry — were buying up the single-family Edwardian houses that had been built along the side streets in the area. As the Italian population grew, the area began to take on a Roman character, with many businesses, restaurants and bars being opened to cater to the growing community.
But as the area grew, it also began to become more multicultural. Following the Second World War, many of the first-generation Toronto-Italians and many of the new immigrants began to move north to the St. Clair Avenue area. The area began to enjoy a new renaissance, however, as Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish families began to fill the vacuum.
The neighbourhood continued to retain much of its Italian flavour, however. Canada’s first multicultural radio station, CHIN-FM, was launched in 1966 by Johnny Lombardi, who had originally purchased airtime on English radio stations before establishing the Italian-language CHIN. Today, the studio remains on College, on a section of the street known as Johnny Lombardi Way, broadcasting in 30 languages. The CHIN Picnic — and its infamous bikini contest — continues to be a highly popular annual event.
And in 1985, the name Little Italy was officially adopted as part of the neighbourhood in recognition of the area’s historic roots in the Italian community in the city. And the Italian Walk of Fame, a stretch of sidewalk along College between Grace and Clinton commemorating many of the world’s Italian celebrities, is a popular site for tourists.
Today, the area along College continues to be home to some of the city’s most popular cafes. Bar Italia, Café Diplomatico, Sicilian Ice Cream are virtually household names to those longing for a friendly patio on a sunny afternoon. But, as the area has diversified, and younger professionals have found the area, the area around Ossington has also become home to a number of the city’s hottest nightclubs and bars.
And College remains one of the city’s prime shopping districts, with clothing, food and furniture stores mixing with everything from second-hand bookstores to ethnic music stores to florists.
But the area’s cultural diversity continues to be demonstrated. The Royal Theatre, one of the city’s leading repertory theatres, is one of Toronto’s most popular destinations for second-run movies, and is used for movie editing during the day. Soundscapes has become one of the city’s most popular record stores and a hub for the city’s independent music scene. The Mod Club, a popular venue for alternative bands and dance parties, has become a magnet for music fans, and the Convento Rico nightclub is the site for several hugely popular gay parties.
And, of course, on Good Friday, Little Italy is still the location of the city’s biggest and best-attended procession reenacting the Passion and death of Jesus.
- Bar Italia
- Café Diplomatico
- Il Gatto Nero
- Coco Lezzone
- Bella Vista Trattoria
- College Street Bar
- Hoof Café
- Black Hoof
- Porchetta & Co.
- Dewson Street Junior Public School, 65 Concord Avenue, 416-393-9120
- King Edward Junior and Senior Public School, 112 Lippincott Street, 416-393-1320
- Charles G. Fraser Junior Public School, 79 Manning Avenue, 416-393-1830
- Montrose Junior Public School, 310 Montrose Avenue, 416-393-9770
- Alexander Muir/Gladstone Avenue Junior and Senior Public School, 108 Gladstone Avenue, 416-393-9140
- Clinton Street Junior Public School, 460 Manning Avenue, 416-393-9155
- Harbord Collegiate Institute, 286 Harbord Street, 416-393-1650
- College streetcar
- Dundas streetcar
- Buses run along Ossington and Bathurst