The big cheese: How Afrim Pristine is guiding Toronto’s Cheese Boutique to new levels of gourmet

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In the Cheese Boutique’s aging rooms, Afrim Pristine points to a 10-foot-high, 1,000-pound aged Auricchio provolone — basically a punching bag-sized torpedo of cheese.

“The Toronto Maple Leafs bought this,” says Pristine, co-owner of the specialty grocer along with his two brothers, Agim and Ilir. “Everyone from the team and management is going to eat this when they win the Cup.”

He stoops down and pulls out a bin of five wheels of northern Italian cow’s milk cheese sitting in an Aperol spritz, an Italian aperitif made from orange peel and rhubarb. Pristine coats the cheese with his hands, as he routinely does, and says with what must be a smile behind his mask, “These kinds of projects, thinking outside the box, this is part of the fun of what we do here.”

Right now, “here” is the Cheese Boutique’s 11,000-square-foot building on Ripley Avenue in the heart of Toronto’s western Swansea area, where staff have served customers thousands of items, ranging from olive oils to pastas to sauces, including 500 different types of cheese, since 2000.

But the place where the Cheese Boutique started, and where Pristine’s journey as a cheesemonger and entrepreneur began, was a tight 650-square-foot store in Bloor West Village near Runnymede Road.

In 1970, Pristine’s father and grandfather, originally from Albania, started the business together. Pristine’s mother, from Naples, Italy, soon helped out, making breads and desserts. It didn’t take long for young Pristine, along with his brothers, to contribute after school, working the slicers, flattening boxes and staffing the cash.

“I also learned early on what a business owner has to do to succeed,” Pristine, 40, recalls. “And not just about getting top products but about supporting everyone in a family business.”