THE BIG RAGU (1338 Lansdowne, at St Clair West, 416-654-7248) Complete meals for $50 per person (brunch $20), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main: $20/$10. Open for dinner Tuesday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to midnight, Sunday 5 to 11 pm. Brunch Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: two steps at narrow entrance, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
With its boisterous sidewalk cafés and bustling greengrocers, the Corso Italia, the stretch of St. Clair West between Oakwood and Lansdowne, is as close to La Dolce Vita as Toronto gets. And though there's nothing particularly Fellini-esque about the Big Ragu, the 17-month-old trat at the Corso's most western reach definitely recalls another cinematic classic, Big Night.
Owner/chef Carmine Accogli has gone so far as to place a poster for the Stanley Tucci period flick about two brothers running an unsuccessful Italian restaurant over the bar. Between Marvin Gaye's sexy bedroom solicitations, Big Night's Louis Prima/Perry Como soundtrack - apparently, mama loves mambo - serenades customers who every evening quickly fill the cozy room's dozen or so tables topped with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. All that's missing are dripping candles in Chianti bottles.
So what better way to study Accogli's short card then with a Tuscan red (Chianti Rufina Basciano, $9 glass/$24 half-litre/$39 bottle/$47 litre)? As we swill, an all-in-black server arrives with a basket of freshly baked feathery focaccia tossed with toasted sesame seeds that we're soon enthusiastically dunking in the quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar found in the cruets at table.
That same delicious dough becomes the thin cracker-crisp crust for Ragu's minimally appointed pizza. We've opted for the traditional Margherita ($10), a deceptively plain pie spread by a restrained hand with house tomato sauce, a smattering of buttery mozzarella, a thimbleful of potent dried oregano and a fresh basil leaf or two. Simple and superb.
We follow it with another shared starter of Magic Mushrooms ($12), a warm mix of broiled fungi - button, portobello but, alas, none psychotropic - on a bed of arugula tarted up with buttery pecorino Crotonese and dressed two ways, one a fruity balsamic syrup, the other a lovely lemon vinaigrette.
Moving on to the mains, Lasagna A Modo Mio (Lasagna My Way) sees alternating layers of noodles, ground meat 'n' lotsa mozza sauced with spectacularly fresh-tasting tomato. Another of what Accogli calls "grandma dishes," orechiette and rapini (both $12) combines ear-shaped pasta with somewhat bitter greens and tasty blackened almonds.
Any trace of its menu-promised garlic and anchovy paste is negligible at best. Shame, that.
But any kitchen would be proud of the house Carne Del Giorno, tonight four meaty pan-seared lamb chops ($27) in a fabulously sweet red wine reduction, accented with a tangle of fresh rosemary and sage leaves and served with gorgeously roasted russet potatoes. An argument breaks out over which of our gang gets to gnaw the bones until I point out who's paying.
Speaking of prices, one of the few faults I note about the Big Ragu - more quirky anachronism then outright gaffe - comes when our otherwise savvy server fails to mention the prices of the meat and fish specials. Not a big deal until you learn that they cost more than twice as much as anything else on the menu.
After a perfunctory panna cotta finish ($7), we conclude with complimentary shots of Strega, the herbal saffron liqueur native to central Italy. As he does at every table, Accogli joins us for a belt.
Back for Sunday brunch, we begin with tumblers of decidedly non-alcoholic cranberry juice ($2) and a basket of just-baked mini-croissants ($4) that, though reminiscent of the work of a certain doughboy, are nonetheless warm and welcome.
Since one of my guests is named Mark, Buongiorno Marco ($8) literally calls out his name. It's a trio of perfectly poached eggs bathed in more of that fabulously pulpy house tomato sauce, here augmented by smoky bits of bacon and caramelized onion.
The 12-year-old in our group chooses something dubbed Dammi Tutto ($9) that turns out to be a heap of parsley-fied scrambled eggs paired with first-rate roasted rosemary-flecked home fries and meatball-style Italian sausage she deems too spicy. Kids these days! Her mom's not that excited by her gorgonzola and portobello frittata served with bitter arugula salad either, judging this Italian-style quiche too cheesy. Isn't it supposed to be?
I, however, have no problem whatsoever polishing off my Spaghetti Western (both $10), a large eggy fritatta thick with pasta, peameal and Parmesan that's also a very creative use of leftovers. Like all the Big Ragu's brunch items, it's plated with slices of respectable house-baked baguette.
After our visits, there's only one detail about this retro resto we can't figure out. Is the Big Ragu an homage to 70s sitcom character Carmine "The Big Ragu" Ragusa?
"I grew up in a very anglo part of East York, and I was the only Carmine anyone had ever heard of other than the guy on Laverne And Shirley," laughs Accogli. "And now I'm stuck with it!"