Toni and Roberto Zito, and their restaurant Cannella, were an institution in Bay St Louis. It was an odd combination of Italian and German food, a combination I have never seen before, but they pulled it off beautifully. I am tempted to say the same about Toni and Roberto, they were an odd couple in the sense of being opposites: Toni ran the kitchen and rarely came out, was soft-spoken and demure. Roberto ran the front of the house and made sure to talk to every guest that walked in the door, a bit boisterous, but always had a ready smile.
Cannella was as authentic a restaurant as you will ever find, with classic German and Italian dishes accomplished with aplomb, dash and amazing attention to detail. The German schweinshaxe was stunning, as was the handmade ravioli, Caprese salad, baked pasta dishes, and zwiebelkuchen. Pretty much everything that came out of the kitchen was divine.
But as good as the food was, it was Toni and Roberto that added the magic that made Cannella as popular as it was. Toni was a master in the kitchen, even though it was as limited a restaurant kitchen as I have ever seen. It was her domain, and how she accomplished what she did in that space will always be a mystery to me. Many customers drove from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, including some pretty famous chefs and restaurateurs, like the Brennen family, who were regular guests. Yes, it was just that good.
Roberto insisted on house rules that are commonplace in Europe but sometimes were met with surprise in south Mississippi. He was the perfect gentleman to the educated guest, who comported themselves as a well-traveled gourmand should. But show up with a group of more than six and you would not be seated. The restaurant was just too small and large groups would hinder service to other customers. And, Lord forbid, if you asked for meatballs and spaghetti, an Italian American classic, but a dish frowned on in Italy. You would be asked to leave. No kidding. Roberto was just that way. And if you were offended and posted a bad review on Facebook or one of the restaurant sites, Roberto would proudly print it and post it on the wall of the men’s restroom.
It all was a part of the mystic of Canella. So, this is the hard part, the worst duty a writer ever has to take on, to write the obituary of his friends, and to take on two at once is as burdensome a task as I can imagine.
Well over a year ago, Toni was diagnosed with cancer and given just a few weeks to live. In classic Zito style, they both fought back, sold the restaurant, moved to Mexico and beat the cancer for a full year. Then it returned and in short order laid Toni low. Roberto’s messages to me were despondent, calling it the darkest hour of his life. We all thought that with time he would recover, even though it was a grievous loss. Roberto gave it a good go, sought counseling, but his posts remained dark. Three months to the day of Toni’s death, Roberto gave up and took his own life. They were an inseparable couple, and to have Toni torn from his life was a tragedy Roberto just could not survive.
I heard the news at 1 a.m. on Oct. 17 from Chef Paola Bugli, a mutual friend, and it has been a bleak day for chefs and friends all over the world. Two bright lights in the culinary world extinguished in so short a time. Grief passes with time, but for the rest of my life, I will remember the espresso and handmade cannoli that Roberto knew were my favorite and served to me almost every time I visited, with a gracious smile and kind words. Adieu my friends, adieu.