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Friendship key ingredient on menu for this Newmarket restaurateur

In this week's What's Up Wednesday, meet Melanie Sala, who ensures Luna Ristorante patrons walk away with full bellies and new friends

Patrons of Newmarket’s Luna Ristorante can expect to walk away with full bellies and new friends.

Co-owner Melanie Sala wants guests to feel at home — only without the need to cook.

“It’s very warm, from the heart interaction,” she says. “Anybody who comes in, I know their name, who they are. I like the interaction with customers. I like the personal touch.

“We’re serious about the food but when people come in, I want them to be comfortable. They don’t need to be dressed to the nines.”

Sala and husband Domenic took over the space, located in the Nature’s Emporium plaza on Yonge Street, in December 2018. The family has owned Unionville Italian restaurant Il Postino for 15 years. 

Owning a restaurant was Sala’s dream. She had worked at a fine dining French restaurant in roles from server to manager. She asked the previous owner of Il Postino, a family friend, to let her know when he was ready to sell, and he did. After a long career wholesaling shoes, husband Domenic joined the new venture. 

For their second Italian restaurant, they settled on the name Luna Ristorante

“Luna is the moon,” Sala says. “The place suits it. It’s romantic.” 

With warm, candle-lit decor, Luna offers seating for 70 and a private room for 25, often used for celebrations of baptisms, confirmations and special birthdays. 

Sala arrived in Canada from Lebanon at age 14. She can welcome guests in French, Italian, English and Lebanese. Domenic was born in Italy and came to Canada at age three. 

“He’s an excellent cook,” his wife notes. “He grew up with an Italian mama. He was the eldest of four kids. He learned a lot of the good stuff.”

The couple serves guests the food they eat at home. 

“We make it real homemade. Each dish is individual, even for 20 or 30 people,” Sala says. “When you do everything in bulk, it’s not the same.” 

Even dressings, sauces, roux and desserts are made from scratch in-house. Local, seasonal ingredients are sourced whenever possible. 

“In the summer we grow our own vegetables and herbs,” Sala says. “I go to the farmer’s market. I buy Ontario lamb, Ontario mushrooms.”

Customers rave about Luna’s bruschetta, made with fresh heirloom tomatoes grown on the vine when in season. Other popular menu items include veal scaloppini, grilled rack of lamb, Mediterranean sea bass and pastas.

“I just love Italian food,” Sala enthuses. “I find it very healthy. You can’t mess it up. You shouldn’t. People love Italian food if it’s done properly.”

Hands-on with everything from creating the menu to greeting customers to staffing to painting walls, Sala notes stress is inevitable when running a restaurant. 

“I always want to do better,” she adds. “I always think there’s room for improvement — the taste, the style, the presentation.”

On the flip side of the stress comes the reward of interacting with repeat customers. “We have met some incredible, classy people,” she says. “For the time we’ve been here, I already have regulars.”