Remembering Luciano Pradal, the ByWard Market’s chestnut evangelist

Remembering Luciano Pradal, the ByWard Market’s chestnut evangelist

“Freshly roasted chestnuts, what more do you need in life?”

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Visitors to ByWard Market this Christmas season have not been greeted by the rich smell of roasting chestnuts or the warmth of the man selling them.

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Luciano Pradal, the sunny man who used to offer passers-by a free chestnut from his ‘Fornella’ sidewalk, died earlier this year of heart failure and pneumonia. He was 79.

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Pradal was a chestnut evangelist. For a decade he was a fixture in front of La Bottega Nicastro on George Street.

“Freshly roasted chestnuts, what more do you need in life?” Pradal once said in an interview.

He even wrote a book called Chronicles of an Ottawa Chestnut Lover. It’s a chatty diary of his interactions with customers while working as “Castagnaro,” the town’s chestnut roaster.

FILE: Luciano Pradal roasts his chestnuts at ByWard Market in Ottawa, December 23, 2010.
FILE: Luciano Pradal roasts his chestnuts at ByWard Market in Ottawa, December 23, 2010. Photo by Jean Levac /POST MEDIA

Pradal’s daughter Sophia said her father was a happy, curious and committed man who saw himself as an ambassador for the Italian community.

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“He was very proud of his Italian roots and loved sharing our culture with others,” she said.

Pat Nicastro, the owner of La Bottega Nicastro, said Pradal always gave out free chestnuts to children passing by.

“He never really made any money from the chestnuts. He probably spent as many for free as he took money,” Nicastro said. “He was a passionate man, always about the chestnuts – it goes back to Italy when he was a kid.”

Luciano Pradal was born on June 11, 1942 in Vittorio Veneto, a city in northeast Italy, during World War II. His father was a soldier in the war and died on the Russian front when Luciano was a toddler.

Pradal grew up in the poverty of post-war Italy and was sent to school in shorts even on cold days. His mother gave him roasted chestnuts to put in his pockets: they provided a hot, nutritious breakfast while also serving to keep him warm.

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He left school to work in a bakery and moved to Turin at the age of 19 to work as a baker and confectioner. In 1966, Pradal joined the wave of Italian immigrants making their way to Canada. He settled in Ottawa and worked in a bakery and construction before joining the federal civil service as a station engineer.

In retirement, Pradal indulged his passion for chestnuts.

As Pradal recounts in his book, “it all started” with a trip to Milan in 2007, where he toured the city and tasted roasted chestnuts from a street vendor – the taste of his childhood. He returned to Ottawa with pictures of the portable chestnut roaster, which he gave to friends Gianni and Nino Frigo, who owned a welding shop in Little Italy.

The Frigos manufactured a roaster and trolley for Pradal, who opened their chestnut roasting business on Preston Street in the autumn of 2009.

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File: Chestnut Roast.
File: Chestnut Roast. Photo by PAT MCGRATH /POST MEDIA

He moved to his familiar location in ByWard Market early the following year after Nicastro helped him obtain the necessary permits.

Nicastro said Pradal was behind his sidewalk stand even in the dead of winter.

“There were terrible snowstorms and he was out there because he had told people he was coming,” Nicastro said.

Pradal loved to ‘educate’ his customers about chestnuts. He told them how the Romans planted chestnut trees in their Mediterranean empire, how the nuts became known as “bread for the poor,” and how they fed millions of people in times of need.

Pradal called chestnuts “a superfood”.

Unlike other nuts, chestnuts contain mostly sugar and starch – rather than oil and fat – which makes them ideal for frying. Pradal always used charcoal to fuel his fornella and would wrap his freshly roasted chestnuts in a blanket to release their flavor and soften their texture.

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He also preached about their nutritional value. Chestnuts, he told his customers, are a good source of vitamin C, fiber and potassium, while being low in fat and cholesterol-free. They also pair perfectly with Perron cheddar cheese and red wine, he gushed.

Chestnuts were a staple in the eastern United States until a fungus unknowingly imported from Asia killed an estimated four billion trees in the early 20th century. Once hailed as the “Redwood of the East,” the American chestnut is now an endangered species in both the eastern United States and Ontario.

Pradal Roasted Chestnuts imported from Italy.

A relentlessly positive man, Pradal was a dedicated volunteer. He tended the vegetable gardens at Villa Marconi, welcomed visitors to the Canadian War Museum, and served as Ottawa’s city guide.

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He continued to work until a series of illnesses, including heart problems and prostate cancer, made it impossible.

Nicastro said he still gets inquiries about “the chestnut guy.”

“He was a special man and people really loved him,” Nicastro said. “He was the guy who was always chatting with people.”

“It was the exposure to the public that he loved; It was his opportunity to tell his story, to share his roots,” said Sophia, one of his two children, “and it warms my heart that people were so receptive to him.”

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