Italian Tradition and Community at the Heart of Success
Story and photos by Kyle Poluyko
Ann Marie Polowski, general manager of the DaVinci Centre, breezes into her office, seemingly unaware of the sweltering heat and the layers of humidity settling around her—she does not have the time. Polowski is simultaneously overseeing the construction of the outdoor patio (as step one of Ontario’s re-opening plan allows the DaVinci Centre to welcome back patrons), handling a building security and safety issue, and taking a call from a customer. And she does it all with charm and ease.
The DaVinci Centre is a Thunder Bay landmark and home to a remarkable Italian community rooted in tradition. The expansive centre hosts hundreds of events per year including weddings, graduations, and corporate and arts events. Its well-established sports bar welcomes numerous events but, more commonly, the centre’s dedicated and familiar patrons. Many may be unaware that the DaVinci Centre is a non-profit organization with a large membership. That membership reaches back into the community, offering scholarships, bursaries, fundraising opportunities, and community partnerships. “At the end of 2019, projections for 2020 were incredible,” says Polowski. “Everything looked great.”
But in 2020, the pandemic put a halt to the DaVinci Centre’s open service and in-person amenities. Bookings for countless special events were pushed back or cancelled. “The loss wasn’t just financial,” Polowski explains. “It was culture, family, community, a focal point.” With hesitation, Polowski recalls her most punishing day, when she had to lay off 55 people. “It was devastating,” she says. After absorbing the shock, Polowski and her resolute team began to think. “One thing,” she recalls. “What is one thing we can do to keep the chains off the doors, so to speak?”
The answer was found in one Italian tradition that has made the DaVinci Centre prominent in Thunder Bay: spaghetti and meatballs. With the popular monthly Sunday spaghetti take-out and sit-down dinner no longer an option, plans were put in motion for a full-service “drive-up and take-out” spaghetti dinner. “We had to try something, and this was something we knew well,” Polowski says.
That first Sunday was a success. As cars snaked through the parking lot and down Waterloo Street South, Polowski was overwhelmed. “There were still grey areas and some obstacles, but that was the beginning of creating a new normal,” she says. Executive chef Tony Catanzaro expanded the Sunday menu to include new offerings including soup, lasagna, chicken parmesan, salads, and desserts. Next, a selection of appetizer boxes was on offer for game nights or just a Friday night at home.
Soon, Polowski was being approached by other organizations and businesses in the city. “They were asking ‘how are you doing this? How are you making this work?’” Polowski shared strategies and offered advice to anyone who reached out to the centre. Meanwhile, the popular sports bar was relocated into the main ballroom, re-branded as The DV Lounge, and an outdoor patio was constructed in the north parking lot. As the outdoor patio begins welcoming patrons once again this year and some staff have been able to return to the DaVinci Centre, Polowski reflects on question marks and learning curves. “Try was all we could do, and success surpassed our expectations.”
The DaVinci Centre is located at 304 Waterloo Street South. New events and updates are regularly posted on their Facebook page @davincicentretbay and on Instagram @davinci.centre.