On a typical night at Gia, the restaurant’s warmly lit interior hums with lively conversation. Diners sip delicate glasses of biodynamic wine while beautiful plates of housemade pasta, panko-crusted meatballs, or tiramisu are set down at tables.
It’s the kind of scene you would expect from one of the city’s most popular Italian restaurants and one that makes it easy to forget that Gia’s classic fare is less traditional than meets the eye: Everything served here is meatless.
Toronto already has a solid vegetarian dining scene with spots like Planta, Rosalinda, and Hawker leading the pack, but an Italian vegetarian restaurant is a rarity in this city. Just a year following Gia’s conversion from a seafood spot to vegetarian-only, MICHELIN added it to its Toronto guide (a place on the MICHELIN guide can sometimes signal a star or Bib Gourmand in the future). Gia’s popularity has prompted owner Jenny Coburn to expand to a new location, which is set to debut later this year.
Read on to learn about how Gia became a local favourite.
Opening the right restaurant in Toronto
Plant-based dining has long been an important personal cause for Coburn, who follows a loosely vegetarian diet. “My partner and I have a lot of animals and we’re sensitive to that,” she explains of her desire to promote plant-based cuisine. “Sensitivity to animals is kind of the dominant force there.”
Coburn’s vision was to channel this passion for animal ethics into a completely plant-based restaurant. However, when she opened her first restaurant Ufficio, in 2016, meat was more prominent than ever on the Toronto dining scene. Restaurants like the Black Hoof, which championed nose-to-tail cooking, were all the rage.
“Meat stuffed with meat was what Toronto was eating,” Coburn says. “So from a business perspective, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s just add fish.’”
Coburn’s compromise was launching Ufficio with pescatarian Italian fare. Coburn loved running the restaurant, but she never lost sight of her ultimate goal of opening a fully vegetarian spot.
Six years in, the pandemic became the unexpected impetus for this transformation.
Early experiments with change
Ufficio closed during COVID-19 and like many restaurateurs, Coburn pivoted to takeout by launching vegan sandwich shop Stefano’s Sandwiches from the same location. Serving vegan riffs on comfort food staples such as filet-o-fish and meatball subs, Stefano’s quickly became a go-to destination in Toronto.
In fact, the plant-based fried chicken sandwich—with Heura’s seasoned and breaded vegan chicken on housemade ciabatta along with preserved chile mayo and pickles from local icon White Lily Diner—got a Twitter shout-out from Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy.
The success of Stefano’s Sandwiches gave Coburn confidence that Toronto would readily embrace a fully plant-based restaurant. “It was such a hit,” she says. “It propelled us to make that leap.”
Ufficio is reborn
As dining rooms reopened in 2021, Coburn relaunched Ufficio as Gia. While the restaurant’s stylish aesthetic and emphasis on housemade pasta remained, Coburn stripped away the menu’s pescatarian elements.
At Gia, classic Italian dishes arrive at the table as soul-warming vegan and vegetarian fare. Ricotta pomodoro comes with a dollop of cashew cream instead of ricotta, panko-crusted “meatballs” are made with a blend of plant-based protein and Impossible beef, and an agnolotti main gets its umami from porcini and wild mushrooms.
“We came at this restaurant from the perspective of doing the same menu as Ufficio but just changing to vegan instead of coming at it from the perspective of, ‘Let’s make vegan food,’” Coburn explains. “We’re still doing traditional Italian cuisine.”
A promising future
Coburb capitalized on Gia’s success by taking over a neighbouring retail space, which is set to open as Gigi Market later this summer. And in even more exciting news for Torontonians, Stefano’s Sandwiches will make a comeback at this location.
“It will have a coffee shop vibe,” Coburn says, noting that Gigi Market will also serve plant-forward breakfast, smoothies, cold-pressed juices, and other vegan grab-and-go fare. The extra space also allows Gia to extend its buzzy summer patio, which stretches along Dundas Street.
Coburn is amazed by Toronto’s embrace of Gia’s plant-forward Italian cooking and is eager to keep growing. “I thought Toronto was going to take a little more time with it,” she says. “But it really kicked off the day the door opened and I was actually a little surprised by it—happily surprised.”
Gia is open Sunday to Thursday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm and on Fridays and Saturdays from 5:30 pm to 10:30 pm.