Overlooking 76 acres of vineyard, the sprawling estate of Two Sisters Vineyards rests stately in Niagara-on-the-Lake; awaiting visitors to pass through its grand doors ready to discover an authentic Italian dining experience.
Inside the grand building is Kitchen76 – an authentic Southern Italian restaurant unlike any other. Floor to ceiling windows frame the property and allow natural light to envelope the traditionally styled restaurant in a sense of magic – transporting diners from the printed fabric of their seats into a villa in Italy.
Fresh basil rests on the exposed kitchen’s bar top and dried chilies hang on the opposite wall, softening the imposing architecture while drawing your eye to the impressive pizza oven in the corner. This juxtaposition of elements have a settling component, easing even the most excited of travelers into a trance that can only be broken by the smell of fresh gnocchi and pizza.
Two Sisters is operated by a family with a true passion for food and wine
The vineyards philosophy is to produce exceptional wines while staying true to varietal character and having the grapes speak for themselves. This philosophy is translated inside Kitchen76 where head chef Justin Lesso’s creations are brought to life; dishes inspired by authentic Southern Italian cooking that are a true representation of the Marotta family’s values.
“The love the family has for food is extremely intense,” says Lesso. “Their life revolves around cooking and being around the table with the family.”
Similar to their award winning wines, the food is all about rich flavours that are not over complicated.
“We are very driven by Southern Italian cooking: very simple, not a lot of butter, olive oil, lots of tomatoes,” said Lesso. “We are constantly tweaking here and there, looking at the ingredients and making sure we maintain dishes that are 100 per cent Italian.”
Their seasonally driven menus and traditional style of cooking have made Kitchen76 a culinary destination. Though there are some staple items on the menu – like the Sicilian style Arancini balls and house made pizzas – Lesso said he likes to switch up the menu but always keeping the customer in mind.
“We always try to stick around the same concept,” said Lesso. “People come back for the same things for a reason so we always try to keep that in mind and work around that when bringing new items onto the menu.”
But Lesso guarantees that two items on the menu will never change: their aged to perfection pizza dough and classic tomato sauce.
“We take our tomato sauce very seriously,” said Lesso. “It is actually the hardest thing I have ever done. Me and the family, they were on me since the beginning, and they were born in Italy so they know better than I do.”
Lesso said there are no secret ingredients; the secret is in the time and care it takes to make it.
“It is 100 per cent technique,” said Lesso. “It is just all about how you cook it …it is pretty complicated. At the end of the day it has to be nice and light and flavourful.”
And for the pizza, Lesso said they will go through an average 53 pounds of dough per day in the summer and it will only be served after the dough has been aged for up to seven days – because that time spent resting is where the dough develops its rich flavour.
“[The pizza] is definitely the star of the show,” said Lesso. “We age the dough … that is the true secret. When you let the dough relax it gets a little soft, it gets blistery and that is where the flavour comes from.”
Lesso said the kitchen also likes to utilize local produce when possible, with some ingredients coming right from their own backyard.
“We take a lot of our fruit that we use straight from the property in the summer,” said Lesso. “We have peaches, plums, pears. And the family does a lot of canning themselves and will bring me beautiful things from Nona’s cantina to use.”
This style of cooking works well for Lesso, whose culinary background is varied and stocked with technique from across the globe.
“I like nice food, simple food,” he says, “because the more complicated you get, the more components to get wrong. And that is what I do not like.”
Lesso’s Incredible Past
No newcomer to the Niagara kitchen, Lesso has a vast repertoire under his belt for his mere 30 years of age. Born and raised in St. Catharines, Lesso said his culinary career began with one single great chef: Erik Peacock of Wellington Court who took Lesso under his wing as a teenager. At only 18-years-old, Peacock chose Lesso to open the Coach House Café at Henry of Pelham Winery.
“He is amazing and he saw something in me,” said Lesso. “I was very young and he put some faith in me.”
Lesso continued to work and apprentice with Peacock on and off for six years as he went to Niagara College. Following completing his degree, he traveled to Europe in order to explore and further his culinary education. His travels took him into the kitchens of some of Europe’s most renowned hotels; working at the Four Seasons in Dublin, with a two-Michelin star chef at the luxury boutique Connaught Hotel and at the eclectic French restaurant La Trompette in London.
Once Lesso returned to Canada, he returned to Wellington Court and Peacock for a short time before continuing on to the kitchen at the Stone Road Grille – where he experimented daily with homemade breads and pastries alongside head chef Steve Page.
Lesso said he was taking a much needed break from the kitchen when he found himself interviewing for the position at Two Sisters Vineyard – a natural progression in his books.
“[Coming to Two Sisters] happened organically,” said Lesso. “They were looking for a chef quite vigorously. Their winemaker reached out to me, because we had once worked together at Wellington Court. It was almost like it was meant to be.”
And he has not looked back over the past two and a half years; attesting his success at the vineyard to years of hard work.
“I kind of put my head down and it’s done me good so far,” said Lesso. “I recommend that to all young chefs.”