Chocolates and coffee. That was the plan for Isabella’s Chocolate Cafe located in downtown Oshawa, initially on Simcoe Street South, now on King Street East. But since Giacomo Bruno first opened the doors a decade ago, live music has been added to the offerings. These days the coffee shop is run by Rosa Bruno, Giac’s sister, but music is still very much on the menu
The cafe is marking the Apr. 19 appearance of Japanese rock band, The Zoobombs, at the nearby Moustache Club, with its own specially designed batch of hand-made sugar cookies.
“I knew the Zoobombs was happening and i thought it would be so cool to do The Zoobombs bear character. I had stickers from the time they played Whitby. And I had seen them at the Silver Dollar,” says Rosa. “I always pick up random artifacts but I can’t find the bear. So I went online and saw the album cover, thought it was neat. I really like that black and white theme. I’m just going to make a little capsule zoobombs cookie collection.”
Over Isabella’s ten year tenure it has been a capsule for Oshawa’s music scene. The cafe has hosted a weekly open mic, all-ages shows and acted as an alternative venue for touring and local indie and upcoming acts. Even on occasion providing a place to bed down for the night.
“Bloodshot Bill ended up on my brother’s couch. He had to just crash. I hung out with my brother and sister-in-law, nieces, a lot. It was a Saturday show and I went over on the Sunday but didn’t realise he was there so I was, ‘oh, heey, Bloodshot Bill,’” she says.
The long list of Chocolate Cafe alumni include Evening Hymns, CATL, Timber Timbre and The Strumbellas. Dave Ritter of the Juno winning country-roots band says the cafe was the first place they played in Oshawa.
“Isabella's is the first place I remember where people who we didn't know personally started to come to see us,” he says. “When you just start out, you either play to your friends or people who just happen to be at the bar. The first few times people said, ‘we saw you play a few months ago and came to see you again tonight’, we were shocked! It was so exciting to think, wow, we almost, sort of, maybe have a few fans.”
When Giacomo Bruno moved in 2010 with his family to Halifax The Strumbellas came by to play his going away party.
Although the cafe no longer has space for shows it still has a strong connection with the music community at large. Even after her brother moved Rosa continued to follow her passion and interest in live music.
“I started an all ages open mic on Fridays, once a month. That was actually such great event. We just created a poster and put it out there. We had also been involved with SASS so we had some connection to the local 14 to 16 year-olds, sometimes 12, 13 year-olds who were coming through and we had such a good reaction. Such a good group of kids who came all the time and some weekends it was just insane in there,” says Bruno.
Isabella’s Chocolate Cafe gave the kids that extra boost along with the coffee and the chocolates. Some of those kids have won Junos, some of those kids are slinging java while working on their own big break. But there has to be one place in every town that gives the kids the break they need starting out.
“Isabella's was the spot to play in Oshawa, and there aren't always great places for bands to play in the GTA outside Toronto,” says Ritter.