Big buzz for Buca

Upscale Italian menu is guaranteed to draw a crowd


BUCA (604 King West, at Portland, 416-865-1600) Complete dinners for $65 (lunches $40), including all taxes, tip and a glass of vino. Average main $24/$16. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, for dinner Monday to Wednesday 5 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: 10 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN


Move over, Terroni on Adelaide. There’s a new kid out on King West and he’s about to muscle into your territory, the desired demographic known as noisy suits with expense accounts and a hankering for casually upscale Italian grub.

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The contender goes by the name Buca and is located on the same block as other heavy hitters like Susur’s Madeline’s and Lee, Thuet’s Conviction and the Spoke Club. It’s not the easiest address to find, hidden away down an alley, around a corner and, like all too-cool boîtes, minus a sign. Still, Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz managed to show up for the opening party last month during TIFF, so it can’t be that difficult.

Today, the cavernous former warehouse boiler room – all sand-blasted brick, dramatically soaring 30-foot ceilings and eerily glowing industrial chandeliers – is sadly under-populated. Staff easily outnumber customers two to one. That won’t be the case for long.

Chef/partner Rob Gentile came up through the ranks with Mark McEwan, first at North 44, then Bymark and One in Yorkville’s Hazelton Hotel, and his carefully crafted card shows his ex-boss’s meticulous attention to detail. See it in the tapas-style starter of crisply deep-fried pigs’ ears graced with fennel (orecchio di maiale, $5) – imagine pork rinds gone to hog heaven – or hollow golden dumplings (gnocchi fritti, $7) paired with strips of fatty house-cured lardo.

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David Laurence

Astonishingly tender skewers of rustic grilled ewe (arrosticini Abruzzesi, $8 lunch/$9 dinner) come sweetly kissed with lemon, olive oil and cracked peppercorn and have our resident lamb-hater literally licking his chops, while a dandelion salad tossed with fresh figs and shavings of hard Piave cheese in mustard vinaigrette (cicoria e fichi, $11/$12) adds bitter contrast.

Pizzas, both white and sauced, are oblong like Turkish pide, and just as blistered and cracker-thin. They get artfully dressed with exotica like house-pickled zucchini flowers and fresh ricotta ($16/$17) or garlicky sardines and escarole ($17/$18). Richer than noodles made with run-of-the-mill chicken eggs, Gentile’s thick ribbons of duck-egg tagliatelle ($16/18) get further fortified with shredded duck ragu, creamy mascarpone and the odd basil leaf.

If only we’d gone with the grilled pile of citrus-rubbed quail over sweet ‘n’ sour cippoline onions ($24) that the hoodied skateboarders at the next table order, instead of Lake Erie perch (persico dorato, $18/$26). Though expertly pan-seared, it’s not the most exciting fish in town, and the muted salsa verde’s little help. Draining the last of our flirty Italian Malbec (07 Castello di Porcia, $7 glass/$38 bottle), we finish with a heavenly pair of chocolate mousse cannoli in custard ($10) and a round of espresso ($2.75 each) and teensy biscotti.

Throughout, servers are helpful and attentive, at times too much so. No water glass needs topping four times, but then, they’ve got nothing else to do. Typically, when it’s time for the bill, they’re all over chatting by the bar.

Clearly, this isn’t the spot for a quiet romantic dinner à deux. But if you’re looking for a big room with big buzz built for big appetites with big bucks, Buca be the place.

Once you find it, of course.

stevend@nowtoronto.com

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