Business

Women in Charge: Elena Morelli is celebrating a quarter-century in the business

As the owner of Noce, one of Toronto’s most beloved Italian restaurants, Elena Morelli knows it’s about more than just serving food—it’s about providing an experience. 

Written by Jordana Colomby

After nearly 25 years on Queen Street West, Noce is basically a Toronto landmark. So, it’s hard to believe that owner Elena Morelli had absolutely zero restaurant experience beforehand. When her now partner Guido Alberto Saldini approached her with the idea, Morelli admits she was a bit naïve about what the whole process entailed, but she had confidence in her people skills, her Italian background, and her knowledge about food. She learned the rest on the job. By meeting people, listening to Saldini, and immersing herself in the business, Morelli found the best way to keep people coming back was to communicate with the customers and get them to try new things. After Noce’s success, Morelli took what she learned and created Aria, yet another popular Italian spot, by Union Station. Even after two wildly successful restaurants, Morelli is still looking for ways to improve and move forward.

Here, she talks about navigating male-dominated fields, embracing change, and building a business.

Elena Morelli Noce Restaurante
A dining room at Noce facing Queen Street West.

On staying strong in male-dominated industries:

I used to work at an engineering company as head of the business development group, so I started off very young in a male-dominated industry, and I had to make it. When I was hired, I worked seven days a week from morning until late at night trying to learn what heavy civil engineering was all about. Working in a company made up of mostly men was difficult. The sexist remarks were endless. But it shaped me as a person because I had to be strong, and it definitely helped me out when I entered to restaurant industry. I became very confident working in male-dominated environments and dealing with difficult situations while maintaining my composure.

On staying relevant for over two decades:

Chef (and third partner) Eron Novalaski, is brilliant in the kitchen and keeps us relevant. Mixing up classic dishes like burrata, by pairing it with local peaches, keeps the menu interesting. The Noce team also travels extensively, stopping in places like Italy, San Francisco, and New York, to learn about new things that are happening and bring that back with us. With customers who are less comfortable with new things, we tell them: let’s try this. If you don’t like it we’ll try something else. This is new, this is fresh, this is local, this is now. Change is difficult for people, especially when it comes to food, but you have to be updated. In Italy, they’re not stuck in the past. Even in Canada, people are interested in trying new, local fish, meats, and produce. We want people to know that things are changing. We are the ambassadors.

On being present:

We can hire restaurant managers, bar managers, and mixologists, but I have learned from other successful restaurants that being present as an owner is key. We aren’t just a meeting point for friends and family, we are a business. I have returning guests from 25 years ago and they love seeing the us here. We are at the restaurant, we remember what customers have had, we get to know their families, and we get to know them. I have customers that come for business and return for date nights and special occasions, and to me that’s very important. I don’t just see one side of the client’s life, I have them coming in and sharing everything with us and our restaurant.