The Patio @ Biagio (155 King East, at Jarvis, 416-366-4040) Upscale northern Italian eatery in historic St. Lawrence Hall with a secluded backyard garden complete with fountain and Old World formal service. Pricey at dinner, but most mains are under 20 bucks at lunch. Average main $30/$16. Complete dinners for $80 per person ($50 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and an $8 glass of wine. Open Monday to Friday for lunch noon to 3 pm, for dinner 6 to 10 pm, Saturday 6 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
On the terrace at Biagio, the pricey Italian ristorante in historic St. Lawrence Hall, a formally attired server takes a crisp white linen napkin from a pale green damask-covered table and dusts the fallen pollen from the plastic Canadian Tire patio chair I'm about to occupy. Once seated opposite a burbling water feature, I take in the midsummer serenity.
Open since 1989, the upmarket northern Italian dining room has never been on the cutting edge of cool. Nor has it tried to be. Instead, it offers reliable food to a well-heeled crowd who expect understated comfort and luxury in an Old World setting. Like Bymark, Biagio makes a great impression on a client or out-of-towner.
Though neither of us fits those descriptions, the Literary Device joins me for a weekday lunch in the secluded flag-stoned garden. As the bleatings of the Gipsy Kings give way to opera, our career server returns with a basket of formidable house-baked focaccia embedded with ripe Roma tomato and dusted with fresh rosemary, as well as slices of a very good brought-in baguette from Molisana. Small bottles of quality olive oil for drizzling grace each table.
While dinnertime prices peak at $39.50 for a rack of honey-mustard-coated lamb plated with braised garlic cloves in lamb jus, several of the same mains are available on the lunch card for less than 20 bucks. Hence, the presence of NOW's crack patio patrol.
The Device begins with liquoricey slices of fennel-marinated Atlantic salmon ($9.75 lunch/$11.50 dinner) tossed with fresh fennel fronds and sections of contrastingly tart mandarin orange, delivered to table on a circular slab of ice. Her thumbs-up differs from the critical stick I accord the house Caesar ($8/$8.75), a pleasant if pedestrian cluster of knife-cut outer leaves of romaine tossed with grated rather than shaved Parmesan. A cookbook-correct Caesar always includes a healthy whack of garlic and anchovy, but Biagio's goes the conservative route, its crucial ingredients too subtle to taste.
She comes up trump again with Lasagne di Mare ($16.50/$19), a sizable, gorgeous square of house-made pasta topped with a tasty sheet of black squid-ink lasagna. Pooled with both a buttery béchamel and a pulpy, sweet tomato sauce intensified with a shellfish reduction, there's a good deal more roughly chunked fennel-scented salmon, scallop and shrimp than noodle.
I'm back on track with my positively Flintstonian secondo, Costoletta Milanese ($18.50/$29.50), a classic northern Italian Provimi veal cutlet. Pounded on the bone, then soaked in milk before being dipped in egg wash and breadcrumbs and sautéed in butter, chef Tommaso Lepore's succulent chop arrives pink-centre perfect and puddled with pan drippings. Underneath the schnitzel-sized serving are an array of equally awesome sides: salted double-roasted red-jacket new potatoes, grilled and olive-oiled red and yellow bell pepper and slender haricots verts.
As the sun dances through the leaves overhead, we polish off the last of our fruity Peroni Pilsner (an exorbitant pre-tax and tip $6.75).
Owner Biagio Vinci - whose extensive wine cellar won a Wine Spectator award of excellence earlier this year - has been providing his clientele with high-caliber cuisine for 15 years. But those of us on beer 'n' burger budgets will be glad to know we can dine like swells, too, since Vinci has extended Biagio's $20 lunch/$30 dinner Summerlicious menu until Labour Day.
A great deal, a lovely meal and quite possibly downtown's classiest al fresco scene - what's not to love?