Mary and Nick Pascale have always told their children about the summer day, nearly 50 years ago, when a newspaperman snapped their photograph on Corso Italia.
In 1970 they had just started dating. Nick was 19, welding in a factory by night and studying at the Marvel Beauty School by day. Mary was nearly 16 — in high school, working part time at Mr. Textile on St. Clair W., the place where Italian ladies shopped for imported silk, wool and Crimplene, that miraculous stretch fabric.
It was a Saturday in July when Mary and Nick decided to meet on St. Clair. Mary had lived in Canada for about four years, and the street felt like home with all the Italian voices. Money was tight, and if she wanted the latest fashions, she sewed them herself. Nick can still remember the softness of the jersey knit fabric of her red paisley mini-dress. He was about two years in Canada then, by way of Milan, and he lived with his sister in Toronto, where fashion was “zero.”
A Star photographer named Bob Olsen was walking along St. Clair W. and College St. that summer, taking pictures of Toronto’s growing Italian community.
According to the 1971 census, there were 270,000 Italians in Metro Toronto, many arriving after the Second World War. Men found jobs in the construction industry, and many Italian women worked in factories. More than 90 per cent of Italian families owned their own homes or were planning to buy them, according to a survey by Corriere Canadese, the city’s Italian-language newspaper.
Italians had changed Toronto forever, and it wasn’t just the cement verandas. “The town’s cosmopolitan flavour, due in large part to the Italian influence, is several kilometres removed from the homburg-and-briefcase, roast-beef-sandwich Toronto of the early 1950s,” Star reporter Trent Frayne wrote in 1970, noting that Italians had worked hard for a good life in Canada, but faced challenges. Children learned English in school, but the language divide was hard on adults.
Olsen asked Nick if he would pose for a photo, then he saw Mary walking toward them on the south side of St. Clair, east of Lansdowne Ave., and changed his plan slightly. He didn’t know that Nick and Mary were an item ever since they met at La Rotonda, a restaurant and dance hall on Dufferin St., where every Sunday afternoon Italian teens danced to live bands. Southern Italian parents were especially strict so Mary pretended she was going to the library, but her dad knew better.
One Sunday, Nick was there. He ordered a Coke, and held a cigarette to look cool. He saw Mary in her red leather skirt and white blouse, turning down every guy who asked for a dance. What’s she here for if she doesn’t want to dance? he thought. He walked over to her, prepared to make a point, but he asked her to dance instead. She had already noticed him when he walked in, handsome in beautiful Italian clothes.
They danced all afternoon.
They were both born in small towns in Calabria, the sun-drenched southern region where the air was fragrant with sage, rosemary and oregano, and a faint smoky smell from the small fires that always seemed to be burning.
At the dance, someone had a car, and a group of them went to Vesuvio’s Pizzeria in the Junction. Nick passed her a family business card for a painting company. Call me, he said. “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles was playing on the radio.
Olsen didn’t know any of this, when he snapped their photo in front of a small grocery store on St. Clair. The story about the Italian community ran that fall, but not their photo, which was filed away in a plastic box of slides in the newsroom. The couple married four years later. Mary sewed the blue silk bridesmaid dresses. Three children followed. She worked at COSTI, an organization that had been founded to help Italian immigrants adjust to life Toronto. (As the city became more multicultural, the organization widened its focus.) Nick became an in-demand hairstylist in Yorkville.
In 1993, they opened a gourmet grocery shop near Yonge and Eglinton, with Italian deli, cheese and imported food. All the while, they wondered about the photo. It became a family legend, and even this past Christmas they were talking about it. Their daughter Cinzia always wanted to see it. Her parents didn’t have a lot of money then, and cameras were expensive. There weren’t many photos.
Toronto Star visuals editor Kelsey Wilson, who runs the @torontostararchives account, recently found the box of extrachrome slides in the newsroom. She posted the photos online in January, and one of the most arresting images was a woman in front of a St. Clair grocery shop, a young man beside her, with a child in an apron holding an orange. People recognized her face.
Not long after, Mary was at the back of Pascale Gourmet when a customer came in waving her phone: Is this you?
Mary saw the sunny Saturday of 49 years ago on the screen. She screamed. She jumped up and down. She drove home where Nick was busy making dinner. He shrugged it off at first, and then he “really saw it.”
It was the photo. The photo.
“I had tears,” he says. “I really had tears.”
At their shop, where you can buy sandwiches named for customers, or try “The Mary” or “The Nick,” they hold up the slides to the light and Mary reflects on how they “grew up together.” “The Long and Winding Road” was on the radio this morning, she says. It’s been the song of their life.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re still together. That’s what I find is amazing,” she says. “Here we are 50 years later … still very much in love the way we were then.”