Biagio Vinci, right, with one of his regular clients and his Order of Ontario at his downtown Toronto restaurant. Luke Mandato

Serving up a slice of humility, respect

By  Luke Mandato, Catholic Register Special
  • December 14, 2023

Nestled in the heart of downtown Toronto sits Biagio Ristorante, a quaint old-world style eatery that’s been serving classic Italian dishes with charm and class since 1989.

With a vibrant dining atmosphere, a vast wine list and a menu that stretches across all aspects of Italian cuisine, Biagio holds up as one of the city’s premier fine-dining establishments.

However, the restaurant may be best known for its owner and namesake, Biagio Vinci, whose demonstration of Catholic humility sees generosity served in equal measures alongside each dish.

What really sets Biagio apart from your everyday trattoria is his commitment to feeding those in need, in more ways than one.

Every Christmas season for the past 25 years, Vinci and his staff have provided complete meals to locals experiencing homelessness, a tradition that carries on to this day. Vinci says that the event touches every aspect of caregiving, with the dinner featuring china and silverware instead of paper plates and even gifts for those who attend.

Vinci says that the most valuable commodity being served at the dinner isn’t even a food item but humility and respect, even if just for the evening.

“We are not there to judge anybody, we are there to try to help them,” Vinci said. “Life is all about giving, not just receiving. We treat them like human beings, not like sick people,” the restaurateur said.

It’s a tradition passed down through his family. As a child — he was born in the town of Serra San Bruno, Calabria, in Italy — Vinci’s mother would invite homeless people into the family home for dinner. So this annual tradition is a way for Vinci to not only help out those less fortunate, but to honour his mother as well.

Due to concerns over the still prevalent COVID-19 pandemic, which is on the rise as winter approaches, Vinci said this year’s Christmas luncheon is still up in the air. However, he plans to cater for St. James Parish which holds its own free lunch the Friday before Christmas.

Whether you are needy or have more than enough, generosity is always on the menu at Biagio Ristorante. When asked why he remains so generous, Vinci reaches for the Gospel passage from Matthew 25:42.

“‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.’ This doesn’t mean God wasn’t (there), it means you didn’t look after my people,” he said.

Vinci’s generosity doesn’t begin and end with the season of giving, however. He’s also a founding member of Catholic Missions In Canada’s Tastes of Heaven board, where he designs the menu for Catholic Missions’ annual Tastes of Heaven gala — for over 20 years — to help out in Canada’s mission territories.

And during the pandemic, he helped feed those working in intensive care units, he and his team bringing dozens of packaged meals to local hospitals, full of variety and free of charge.

“To me, it was another call from God. I’m Catholic and I feel that there’s somebody guiding over me… (As) God gave to us, so now we give,” Vinci said.

His work has not gone unnoticed. In February, Vinci received the Papal Honour Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For the Church and the Pope). The honour is awarded for distinguished service to the Catholic Church by lay people and clergy and is the highest of its kind. And last month Vinci received the Order of Ontario award, the province’s highest civilian honour that marks service of the greatest distinction and of singular excellence in any field benefitting society in the province.

“I feel that I received a prize from God,” Vinci said. “We should not be Catholic if we don’t do things, we should not be Catholic just by name, we should be Catholic by action.”

 A father of three, Biagio Vinci is thankful that his son Michael is following in his footsteps. Michael works in the catering and food business himself and supports St. James Church in Toronto through his own charity work.

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