Hancock County

Chef of a hidden gem restaurant in Bay St. Louis has died after battle with cancer

Sad news this week for those who were fans of Cannella restaurant in Bay St. Louis.

Chef and co-owner Toni Zito passed away at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas on July 14, after a long and valiant struggle with cancer. She is survived by her husband Roberto Zito.

I first visited Cannella in 2013, and was blown away by what I found. Almost everyone commented on what at first might seem an unusual combination of Italian and German food, but Roberto defended the pairing robustly.

And if you know Roberto at all, you know exactly what I mean. Roberto ran the front of the house and was outgoing, friendly and quick to point out the finer points of the menu and service.

Chef Toni’s domain was in the kitchen, and she seldom ventured out, but if a kitchen ever had magic, it was Toni’s. It was a small kitchen, under-equipped by professional restaurant standards, a fact that made the amazing food she created there all the more remarkable.

I adored the smoked pork shank (Schweinshaxe), a huge portion of falling-apart pork, imported from Germany’s Bavaria, served with all the made-from-scratch German sides, the house-made pastas, a brilliant Caprese salad, and so much more.

But there was one very special pairing that was simply beyond measure. Chef Toni made all the desserts from scratch, and all were glorious, but her cannoli, oh my goodness’s, they were indescribably good.

Roberto made the best espresso I have ever had. He called it his “regimental espresso,” because it met the standards of the espresso served when he was in the Italian army. But when combined, wow, absolute perfection.

I wrote about Cannella and this wonderful combination for the Sun Herald in 2017, and this is what I said: “A while back I was sitting in Cannella, and a couple from New Orleans came in. The man ordered a cannoli and espresso, took a bite, put it down, leapt out of his chair and embraced the hostess, saying this is the most delicious thing I have ever put in my mouth.” See what I mean?

Forgive me, but I can find no more suitable metaphor for Chef Toni and Roberto than this simple pairing. Separately they were good people, kind and interesting, but together it was hard to imagine anything more wonderful. Chef Toni and Roberto had a zest for life, when they were in your life, the sun was out. But today, it is not.

I sat with Toni and Roberto many times at their private table in the back. We sipped espresso, talked food. Roberto had no patience for those that did not understand the food they were serving, and woe to anyone that asked for spaghetti and meatballs.

Roberto is a man of opinions, Toni was more reserved, but there was steel in her backbone, and magic in her hands. An hour or so with these two at their table was an experience I will cherish forever. I once extolled the virtues of German cordon bleu at this table, and the next time I visited, Roberto would not let me order from the menu, but instead served a cordon bleu that Chef Toni had made special for me. Its just the kind of people they were.

The last time I visited Cannella, almost exactly a year ago, Chef Toni looked worn down, and Roberto was crestfallen. His beloved wife had been diagnosed with cancer and her life expectancy was measure in weeks. They closed the restaurant and moved to Mexico, but Toni beat the cancer, at least for a year, typical of her strength and determination. I hope that year was a year of wonder and happiness.

I do not know how to end this other than to quote John Donne. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We all suffer the loss of this profoundly special woman, who’s talent delighted hundreds. My heart goes out to Roberto, I can’t imagine his anguish. Thank you Chef Toni for your friendship, and thanks to you both for the espresso and cannoli, a simple gift, but a profound one that will never be equaled.

Goodspeed, Chef Toni.

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