243 King East, at Sherbourne, 647-347-8930, ardorestaurant.com
When I arrive at Ardo, Roberto Marotta‘s new Sicilian kitchen on King East, the chef is waiting for me by the open window.
“We’re doing something really interesting in the back,” he says immediately, beckoning me toward the kitchen.
When I get there, sous chef Jesse Bierman and another member of the kitchen staff are breaking down a 4-foot-long swordfish just caught wild off the coast of Nova Scotia.
That swordfish, Marotta theorizes, will likely end up in a carpaccio that week, as well as a tomato-couscous dish that features seasonal seafood ($21).
Couscous in an Italian restaurant? “This is a Sicilian dish – we’re very close to North Africa,” he says, adding that he gets his direct from Sicily (organic, natch).
Marotta’s goal at Ardo is to introduce Toronto to the finer, lesser-known points of the food of his native island, with upgrades befitting the restaurant’s proximity to the Design District: “It’s Sicilian elements with a little bit of a modern twist.”
The chef began his culinary career in his native Italy but came to Canada seven years ago after he met his wife. “She was supposed to stay in Italy for two weeks [on vacation] it ended up being two years. (Marotta assumes full responsibility for that sudden life change.)
Starting over from scratch, he took a position at Terroni and opened Parkdale’s now-defunct Maialino Enoteca before serving as the executive chef at Nodo in the Junction until the time came to strike out on his own. The keen-eyed will recognize a few menu items from his Junction gig – including a great pizza bianca that cleverly recasts the classic Italian antipasto of prosciutto-wrapped melon as thinly-sliced toppings accented with fresh basil ($18).
Pistachio-crusted cannoli are based on chef Marotta’s nonna’s recipe.
Marotta’s pizza crust is sourdough, as is the dense, crisp-crusted bread he bakes in-house and serves with peppery, fresh olive oil he sources directly from one of Sicily’s oldest producers.
“That’s the way my grandmother used to make her bread. It’s a lot about memory – bringing back those memories for people who come here to dine. It’s a luxury for me.”
Other nostalgic touches include a caponata garnish on the grilled octopus starter ($14) a twist on the family cannoli recipe with roasted pistachios and chocolate ($8) and a knockout arancino, the quintessential southern Italian street eat, stuffed with soft meat-ragù risotto, peas and a healthy dose of caciocavallo cheese ($7).
The arancino is stellar, I tell him. He replies, “Well, I’d hope so. I’m Sicilian.”
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