tavola CALDA (671 College, 416-536-8328) Although this former hole-in-the-wall has tripled in size, it still offers bargain-priced old-school southern Italian home-style favourites like spaghetti and meatballs. A bit bright, this comfortable room will never be in fashion, but its fabulous no-frills food outlasts trends. Best: multi-tiered eggplant parmigiana; veal osso bucco with rustic tomato topping over Arborio rice; ricotta-stuffed ravioli; paprika-pink potato or minty beet salad; ethereal budan de pan (bread pudding). Complete meals for $20 per person ($12 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11 am to 10 pm. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNNit's certainly not the most gla- morous boite on the College strip. But so what?When we first visited this tiny southern Italian spot four years ago, it seemed like every seat in the house -- all nine of them -- was taken up by cooks and wait staff from nearby posh joints looking for an authentic alternative to the Cal-Ital imitations served up by their employers. No-frills pastas, two-fisted sandwiches, robust soups and stews -- the stuff you can't find anywhere any more.
Word spread, and lineups soon snaked out the door at all hours. A patio out front eased some of the crowding during summer months, but the place was still too damned small. Last February, the Lanzillotto family (that's affable son Pat up front and charming mom Mary running the open kitchen) closed up shop and gutted the building. The overhaul was finally completed late last October.
Don't worry. Hardly anything's changed. There's certainly more room: a 30-seat powder-blue banquette lines a mustard-coloured wall. The space is a lot brighter than it used to be, and the CD player continues to shuffle from Frank to Dino to Pavarotti. The new menu's bigger, too, if slightly more expensive. But the warmth that wraps around you the minute you walk in the front door remains exactly the same.
It shows in held-over dishes like Mary's famed eggplant parmigiana ($5.95), a 6-inch-square tier of breaded 'plant, mozzarella and sweet, straightforward homemade tomato sauce that's just as lovely as it used to be. As are Ensalata Rusa, a fresh carrot- and garden-pea-laced potato salad dressed in paprika-pink mayo, and minty beet salad in a red-wine vinaigrette (both $3 small/$4.50 large). Garlicky pan-fried rapini pops up as a tasty side ($4/$6.95) and layered over meaty sausage on a crusty bun (Satizzo, $5.75).
There are some new favourites as well. Osso bucco ($11.95) features veal shank so tender it falls from the bone and melts in the mouth. It comes with a rustic chunky tomato topping studded with huge chunks of celery and carrot over al dente Arborio rice. And who else would dare to offer spaghetti and meatballs ($8.95) on uber-hip College, a dish so retro it's avant-garde?
Saving the best for last, budan de pan ($3.95) sees a slab of sensational bread pudding -- more of an ethereal custard, really -- crowned with golden sultanas and a glaze of orange Cinzano. Paired with a perfectly frothed cappuccino ($2.25), our knockout nosh comes to an end. Figure in down-home weekend brunches, and Tavola Calda's better than ever.
A few blocks over, Magnolia(548
College, 416-920-9927) opened a few weeks back. What at first looked like a ho-hum chi-chi gourmet grocery actually sells fresh produce, flowers and packaged foods at prices considerably lower than local supermarkets and inconvenience stores.Besides 450-gram boxes of de Cecco pasta ($1.49), litre bottles of fizzy Orangina ($2.99) and a selection of Forbes wild foods, Marigold offers first-rate focaccia sandwiches -- things like smoked salmon with arugula and chevre or beef carpaccio with roasted red peppers over black-olive tapenade (both $4.50) -- and super lunch-size designer pizza slices ($2.55). Throw in bread from Fred's and Ace, and Marigold makes great one-stop gourmet shopping.