14 terrific trattorias expanding the pasta-bilities of a classic cuisine
An encyclopedic knowledge of (and gleeful cherry-picking approach to) Italy’s lesser-known regional dishes a deft hand with off-cuts and offal big, bold flavours some seriously righteous garlic knots. That’s the winning formula that’s made the Buca family a seemingly unstoppable force in the city’s food scene since Rob Gentile and King Street Food Company set up shop in 2009. Now with two of each concept (the high-end, dinner-oriented Buca and snackier day-to-night Bar Buca) under its belt, the team has found ways to play into the neighbourhood’s appetites at its latest, Bar Buca Eglinton, that includes new grab-and-go options like scrumptious pizza al taglio, plus a beefed-up roster of after-work aperitivi.
604 King West, 101 Eglinton East, and others. buca.ca
A place this good would never fly so far under the radar in the west end, but Leslievillians seem more than happy to hog all of Ascari’s 38 seats. Erik Joyal and John Sinopoli have kept the menu to a slate of non-regionally-specific Italian dishes designed to mesh well with the impressive wine selection. Pastas, all made by hand (as in, mixing eggs in a flour well), are a highlight the candy-shaped caramelle in particular are a study in contrasts: sweet, mellow pumpkin filling sucker-punched by a lemon, caper and anchovy sauce.
1111 Queen East, at Caroline, 416-792-4157, ascarienoteca.ca
Who’d have thought that a joint with a salty name (it’s an epithet used for Southern Italians), opening on a then-seedy stretch of Queen West, would have ended up becoming granddaddy to a legion of hip Italian restaurants? What started in 1992 as a casual spot for locals to grab a tin of olive oil, un cappuccio or a wood-fired pizza has exploded into three restaurants, a bakery (Sud Forno), spinoffs Bar Centrale and La Bettola di Terroni, and even two locations in L.A. – and the pizzas, pastas and grilled meats are as fine as ever.
720 Queen West, 57 Adelaide East, and others. terroni.ca
A few years back, Victor Barry transformed fine dining institution Splendido into a playful Italian joint – and the neighbourhood ate it up. Since then, Piano Piano (a riff on an Italian maxim that translates, essentially, to “slow and steady wins the race”) has become a reliable destination for date nights and family feasts alike, thanks to a broad menu of blistered pizzas, pastas, meats and sides that take just the right liberties with classic flavours (designer Tiffany Pratt’s riotously floral interior doesn’t hurt either).
88 Harbord, at Sussex Mews, 416-929-7788, pianopianotherestaurant.com
There might be no greater sign of how Torontonians are dining nowadays than Rob Rossi putting the beefy Bestellen out to pasture in favour of a veggie- and seafood-driven ristorante decked out in sleek, luxurious textures. No nonna vibes to be found here: though resolutely Italian, Giulietta is modern and stylish, with a keen sense for a left turn – like a date and anchovy vinaigrette to sling atop an endive salad with ricotta, or chucking walnuts and bitter radicchio into a Gorgonzola gnocchi.
972 College, at Rusholme, 416-964-0606, giu.ca
There’s a distinct magic in the air behind the dungeon-like doors at Ryan Campbell’s College cicchetteria, one that shows up in dishes like a perfect little daisy of ricotta smothered in chicken broth or a chopped-seafood sandwich coated in a mossy layer of chives. If you haven’t been lately, now’s the time to revisit: Campbell and Co. are launching a new menu meant to serve as a tour of each region of Italy, starting with the north and working its way down.
585 College, at Clinton, 416-530-7585, ilcovo.ca
Does a half-Spanish fusion joint belong on this list? I’m making an official ruling in its favour. Our Castilian compatriots do share the Italian affinity for tomatoes, cheese and carbs, plus the food at this Baby Point joint speaks for itself. Purists might scoff at the inclusion of chorizo and iberico in the meatball mix, but the resulting peachy-hued polpette, served with burrata, sugo and polenta (or bread at lunch), are so insanely good you’ll wish your nonna had had that genius brainwave herself. But there’s also great ricotta-potato gnocchi (with red sauce or pecorino and artichokes) if you want to go the classic route.
244 Jane, at Ardagh, 647-346-2267, camporestaurant.com
Largely thanks to its proximity to the Four Seasons during the golden years of TIFF, this Yorkville trattoria has spent its 27 years cultivating a well-heeled clientele (including, most notably, Drake) and a star-studded appeal that not even a devastating fire in 2015 could crush. But instead of coasting on its rep, the Sotto kitchen turns out a broad menu of beautifully rendered central Italian classics, including perfect cacio e pepe, risotti and seafood that would give Drizzy’s other fave, Joso’s, a run for its money.
120 Avenue, at Davenport, 416-962-0011, sottosotto.ca
King East locals know what the rest of Toronto has been sleepin’ on: Roberto Marotta’s stylishly unassuming Corktown kitchen is a winner. Marotta’s menu, with its conical caciocavallo-stuffed arancini, couscous-crusted eggplant and blood orange salad, is ostensibly a love letter to his native Sicily. But it’s also an ode to family: the sourdough pizza crust and ricotta-filled cannoli are riffs on recipes handed down by his nonna, and his son, Leonardo, inspired the restaurant’s name.
243 King East, at Sherbourne, 647-347-8930, ardorestaurant.com
This slightly upmarket trattoria and wine bar from the folks behind Pizzeria Libretto has a steady handle on the classics. Its cacio e pepe is solid, and a steal at $13 (you’d probably pay the same at the grocer’s for that much pecorino). But the kitchen really shines when it gets the opportunity to riff, stuffing pasta with creamy chestnut purée and floating them in a mushroom broth, or tossing brussels sprouts in an electric-orange chili and mustard glaze.
1288 Dundas West, at Coolmine, 416-534-1200, sociale.ca
Considering the high calibre of its food, Mattachioni – an unassuming Junction Triangle spot with lazy luncheonette vibes – flies shockingly low under the radar. David Mattachioni’s kitchen jars its own peperoncini, air-cures tender bresaola and sells bags of its own house flour, which ends up in loaves of elastic sourdough and pizzas with perfectly blackened, bubbled crusts. They’ll even give you a bit of their sourdough starter if you ask. (How neighbourly.)
1617 Dupont, at Edwin, 416-519-1010, mattachioni.com
Hanging out at this warmly lit Cabbagetown joint feels like drinking wine in a friend’s living room – if their living room had a wood-burning pizza oven smack in the middle. It’s tough to go wrong here: from smoky charred octopus on a bed of chewy beads of fregola, to buttery, thumb-wide pappardelle tossed with kale and tender shreds of rabbit, to pizzas so light you’ll go back for a third, fourth and fifth slice. Small wonder this sequestered little spot is rammed on weekends.
12 Amelia, at Parliament, 416-323-0666, famelia.com
The overall vibe at this pair of trattorias: “House party in your nonna’s cantina”. There’s plenty of drippy wine-bottle candelabras, and the kitchen has an honest-to-goodness grandma at the helm (owner Rosa Marinuzzi, who generally presides over the Eglinton location) – but then there are the communal tables, schoolhouse chairs and the 90s hip-hop and Neil Young on the stereo. It’s the perfect cozy setting for Marinuzzi’s Southern Italian staples, including saucy, sloppy lasagna and a slow-braised lamb shank so tender, you’ll polish it off without so much as looking at your knife.
516 Eglinton West, at Heddington, 416-322-5183, and 307 Danforth, at Bowden, 416-469-5183, sevennumbers.com
Craig Harding’s debut outing (est. 2010) doesn’t get enough props for balancing Italian tropes with knowing modernity. With its gold scrollwork, red-painted swords and classic blue-painted ceramics, it’s like your nonno’s briscola deck got transformed into the hippest special-occasion joint in town. A few staples stay static on the rotating menu (including the burrata with roasted grapes, which seems to predate Toronto’s current burrata craze by half a decade), but pretty much anything the kitchen comes up with is a winner, including a grilled polenta served with seared radicchio and a molten pool of Gorgonzola that made me shed one single, lonely Furlan tear.
832 Dundas West, at Euclid, 416-364-4785, campagnolotoronto.com
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