Recently, the owner of an Italian restaurant in the Olympic Village came under withering criticism for defying a public health order to shut down.
Federico Fuoco’s eatery, Gusto: A Taste of Italy, only had four tables at the time. Its large windows could be opened to create a great deal of fresh air flowing through the establishment. But he broke the rules and the city temporarily suspended his licence until April 20.
He complied with the inspectors' order after they visited. This stood in contrast with the other outlier, Corduroy, where the inspectors were shouted out of the establishment by antimask advocates. The city wanted to send a message so each received the same penalty.
Prior to the licence suspensions, Fuoco spoke at a rally for small businesses because he objected to what he saw as a double standard. He pointed out that IKEA, Costco, and Walmart all welcome scores of customers each day but small businesses had to close.
I know a worker at one of these large stores who’s shared with me his concerns about the company’s challenges in enforcing mask mandates and physical distancing. I was also in a grocery store on this past weekend where it seemed to me that customers were sometimes in very close proximity.
It bothered Fuoco that operators of other enclosed spaces, including on ferries and patios and in wineries, were able to continue providing service to patrons. Meanwhile, restaurateurs lost thousands of dollars worth of inventory because of the lack of reasonable notice.
Fuoco is also a political activist, which means he’s attracted some criticism over the years. When he was operating Federico’s Supper Club on Commercial Drive, he irritated some cycling advocates with his vocal opposition to a separated bike lane on the street.
In addition, he was on the board of the NPA when it vetoed then councillor Hector Bremner’s application to contest a mayoral nomination. Bremner's friends haven't forgotten that.
Nowadays, Fuoco is part of the current NPA board that’s suing Mayor Kennedy Stewart for defamation. This came after the mayor offered his views—below city letterhead—on the NPA board following news reports about another NPA board member.
But there’s another side of Fuoco that isn’t well known outside the Italian community. And that's been his willingness to support various charitable initiatives.
He, along with businessman Carmen D’Onofrio, resurrected Italian Day in Vancouver in 2010, which has brought joy and pride ever since to the East Side of the city. In non-pandemic years, it lured hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Last year during the pandemic, there was no Italian Day celebration on the Drive. So instead, Fuoco and the other organizers created a float with live music to go up and down the street with music in a fundraiser for Coast Mental Health.
The “Drive for Courage” concerts generated $10,000 to help an organization that serves some of the most marginalized people in our city. I remember standing on the corner of East 3rd Avenue and Commercial Drive witnessing Fuoco belting out a song on the float as it passed in front of me.
Charities benefited from Fuoco's efforts
The previous year, Italian Day on the Drive’s theme was comunità, or community in English. The businesses in Little Italy along Commercial Drive, including Fuoco’s former supper club, and other Italian Day partners helped raise $10,000 for the East End Boys and Girls Club.
I had the privilege of writing an article about this club, which was created by long-time Templeton secondary teacher Jimmy Crescenzo and built upon by another teacher, Tanya Zambrano.
These two kids of poor Italian immigrants were celebrated for doing such an outstanding job keeping at-risk students out of trouble. A former club member told me that he would be dead today had it not been for Crescenzo.
Fuoco and other key organizers played an instrumental role in honouring these wonderful educators in a ceremony in front of a massive crowd on Commercial Drive. That’s comunità!
Over the years, Fuoco has performed for free at several fundraisers for the Michael Cuccione Foundation. He and other Italian Day organizers helped it generate even more donations by reviving the Italian Day celebrations.
The Michael Cuccione Childhood Cancer Research Program at B.C. Children’s Hospital reports that about 125 people under the age of 15 are diagnosed with cancer each year.
At the start of the 21st century, half of these children would not have survived. Now, with the help of medical advances, including immunotherapy, three-year survival rates are over 80 percent.
I also had the privilege of interviewing Michael Cuccione’s parents, Dominec and Gloria, before the last pre-pandemic Italian Day on the Drive in 2019. They have kept up the fight against cancer in the face of unspeakable grief for more than two decades since their courageous boy died.
At the time, Gloria Cuccione told me that another $3-million had been raised to fund immunotherapy to help children build their own T-cells against cancer. I ran into them a few days later at their booth on the street during the Italian Day on the Drive celebration.
I’ll never forget how good it felt when Michael Cuccione’s uncle, also named Michael, offered a heartfelt thank you to me for writing about the family’s efforts to help kids with cancer. My first thought was I should be thanking him and all the others in the Italian community, including Fuoco, who’ve given up their time to fight this scourge. All I did was write an article.
Coincidentally, a few months later I interviewed a Taiwanese community leader, Carol Pan, who had received immunotherapy to beat back stage four cancer.
“It’s a wonder drug,” Pan told me. “It worked. I always tell people ‘If you have cancer, just hang in there. They are doing so much research.’”
Pan was so grateful that she and her husband Leigh decided to buy a $1-million PET/CT scanner for the B.C. Cancer Agency. That, too, is comunità!
But I digress. When Fuoco owned his supper club on Commercial Drive, he encouraged staff to feed the homeless who would knock on the back door every day—right up until he shut down due to the pandemic. In his heyday, he brought live music back to Commercial Drive.
Fuoco is also a very talented singer. That was on display inside the Vancouver council chamber in 2019 when he and his father Gianni serenaded me and everyone else in the gallery with a stunning version of “Volare”.
This occurred on the same day that Mayor Stewart celebrated the contributions of Italian Canadians to the City of Vancouver by declaring June as Italian Heritage Month.
Back in 2018, I interviewed Fuoco before he was given the Italian Canadian Man of the Year award by Confratellazana. It’s an organization that was created by lawyer and judge Angelo Branca, who gained a legendary reputation in the community in the 1930s for fighting discrimination against Italian immigrants.
At that time, Fuoco talked about the sacrifices that his parents and others made after coming to Vancouver as poor immigrants. They didn’t have a raft of social-service programs to fall back on.
“They worked their butts off and sacrificed for the kids and their families,” Fuoco told me back then. “That’s who I admire and honour. That’s who I want to pay homage to.”
We are all a multiplicity of identities. And we all make mistakes from time to time.
"Perfection simply doesn't exist...without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist," cosmologist Stephen Hawking once said.
It’s understandable that some people are very upset at Fuoco for violating a public health order, even if he was making a point about how he felt the deck was stacked in favour of big business over small business.
But if we look at the sum of Fuoco's life—and what he’s contributed to the city as well as his readiness to comply when inspectors showed up—it’s worth remembering the first part of Dr. Bonnie Henry’s dictum “Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe.”
I would argue that on April 20, if not sooner, kindness is in order and the city should give him back his operating licence to resume serving the public in the same manner as every other restaurant in the city. I highly doubt he will break the health rules again.
So what’s to be gained from keeping him in the penalty box or driving him out of business? More hardship for him and his staff? Fewer community fundraisers for worthwhile causes?
To extend the suspension would be mean-spirited, especially when you think of those who’ve benefited from Fuoco’s efforts on behalf of the Michael Cuccione Foundation, Coast Mental Health, and the East End Boys and Girls Club.
As the Italians like to say, ama molto. Love in abundance. We need a lot more of that in this pandemic.