Leslieville's fave modern Italian joint gets a big upgrade with striking new digs and an expanded menu
Ascari King West (620 King West, at Portland, 416-366-3673, ascari.ca) is the new west-side outpost of Ascari Enoteca, which until now, has flown largely under the radar as a Leslieville hidden gem.
For the past few years, east-enders have been content to hog Ascari all to themselves, flocking to the 38-seat spot for fresh housemade pastas and unusual wines. Between Ascari and their French brasserie Gare de L’Est, owners Erik Joyal and John Sinopoli (who also previously ran Table 17) were big fish in a fairly small pond.
Which begs the question: Why pick King West — which, at this point, is a more ram-packed neighbourhood for Italian eats than the actual Little Italy — for a second location?
“We were like, maybe it’s time for us to step it up and, for lack of a better term, play at centre ice, like the big boys,” says Sinopoli.
There’s no shortage of competition around here, with Cibo, two Bucas, Gusto 101 and Oretta all within spitting distance. “In fact, our real estate agent was like, ‘Why don’t you guys do another Gare de L’Est?’” Sinopoli says.
“But we have a strong identity behind who we are and what we do – a progressive wine list with interesting selections that’s thoughtful and accessible, and a menu of mainly handmade fresh pasta that straddles both the traditional and the modern.
“We’re pretty comfortable with that. And to really grow as a company, we had to stretch out from the neighbourhood.”
A move west also means new diners Sinopoli acknowledges that as die-hard as Ascari’s following is, there’s only so much business to be had in a quieter area. And there’s plenty of room for all those new guests: The retro-industrial space, which takes ample advantage of the location’s 16-foot windows, offers a bar, a huge harvest table and a sequestered side dining room that seats 30.
“When people ask if we have a quiet table, we have an answer now, and it’s ‘yes’,” Sinopoli says. “We’d get those requests online, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you haven’t been here before.’”
More importantly, Ascari on King lets the kitchen staff stretch their legs as well. The original Ascari’s tiny open kitchen meant an equally tiny menu — mostly pastas supplemented by a few sides and specials. To develop the newly expanded menu, Sinopoli and Joyal brought in chef Michael Lam, who’d spent time at Buca and Il Covo as well as restaurants in New York and Australia before taking over the kitchen.
“John mentioned he wanted a crudi section, a carpaccio section and a secondi section — and those, I think, are where I’m most comfortable,” Lam says.
The resulting menu features a mix of super old-school dishes (Sinopoli singles out the baccala slow-cooked in milk), plus modern creations like Australian lamb done two ways. Some ingredients are imported to secure quality control over the amount of plates the restaurant needs to produce, but in an effort to give diners something new and keep Lam and the rest of the kitchen on their toes, dishes will change with the seasons.
The pasta, of course, isn’t going anywhere: Sinopoli says the carbonara, spaghetti alla chitarra and puttanesca will forever remain exactly as the Leslieville crowd remembers it.
Sea bream crudo ($18) features pistachio, olive oil and compressed rhubarb.
Ricotta-mascarpone agnolotti ($25) come topped with fried zucchini blossoms and truffle zabaglione.
The burrata ($21) is wreathed with a pea and baby gem salad.
Rack and neck of Australian lamb ($39) is served with a mix of farro, peas and mushrooms, plus vinaigrette made from foraged ramps.
Ascari’s desserts are always on point, and the lemon tart ($12), served with a pine nut tuile and chocolate mint leaves, is no exception.
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