CUCINA (640 College, at Grace, 416-532-3841) Complete meals for $45 per person (lunches/brunches $25), including all taxes, tip and a glass of house plonk. Average main $15. Open daily 8 am to 1 am, bar till 2 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday till 3 pm. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Toronto's Italian community may have moved away from downtown's Little Italy for pastures piu verdi in suburban Woodbridge 20 years ago, but the seven or eight blocks west of Bathurst on College are still home to more trats than you can shake a breadstick at.
What restaurateur in his or her right mind would think of opening another?
Enter Mark Bruyea, one-half of the Bruyea Brothers. Launched in 2003, the brothers' eponymous College Street eatery sought to bring high-end contemporary dining to this hippest of strips. The cocktail crowd that packs Teatro, Xacutti and Sotto Voce didn't bite. After a major rethink, Bruyea, now a solo act, has transformed the smart supper club setting into Cucina, a self-described "southern Italian caffe" with an all-day menu that kicks off at 8 in the morning with breakfast and doesn't close till well after midnight.
To make the space more approachable, its forebidding storefront has been replaced with a wall of glass that opens to the street. Once deep chocolate, the walls are now brightly white-washed, and the area by the large front window has been converted into a lounge decked out with overstuffed leather club chairs, the perfect spot to while away the afternoon over an Americano ($2.10).
Cucina's card is just as accessible, with Bar Italia-style pizza and panini - uniformly priced at 12 bucks - and pastas at $14. Throw in an awning-covered curbside patio on one of Toronto's hottest people-watching corners - think Diplomatico - and watch those cash registers ring. Of course, it helps that Cucina's cucina does some very creditable work.
A shared seafood antipasto ($15 for two) sets the bar high early, spectacularly presented on a long, narrow rectangular white plate daubed with tomato oil. A ring of tender calamari gets stuffed with minty ground lamb. Delicately poached in court-boullion, an octopus tentacle rides a pile of gently pickled red onion rings.
Sardines arrive free of bones and lightly marinated in lemon and white wine vinegar. House-cured gravlax has been fashioned into a tube and plopped upright on a translucent slice of lemon, surrounded by plump capers, a frond of fresh dill its jaunty topknot. Devilishly doused in sambal, a pair of sizable shrimp Diavolo remarkably retain their bite.
One would assume that what the menu describes as "beef carpaccio and watercress salad" ($10) involves roughage of some sort. Instead, it's a plate-size sheet of tasty tissue-thin meat artfully pooled in fruity olive oil, a handful of briny capers and exactly three sprigs of cress and a basil leaf or two. The 13-year-old in our posse raises her nose despite her mother's reminder that "you like sushi, remember?"
Listed as a starter and laudably presented so that all of their yawning shells point upwards, a pound of baby mussels ($10) swimming in a gorgeously rustic tomato sauce topped with chopped basil could easily satisfy as a main. Needs garlic, and it's a shame the kitchen doesn't do frites.
Deliciously sided with three different types of mayo - roasted red pepper, green pesto and white freshly grated horseradish - Cucina's equally delish pulled pork sandwich comes slathered with red currant chutney, dressed with sambal-fired slaw and grilled between slices of terrific house-baked focaccia. A first-rate salad of baby arugula in raspberry vinaigrette tossed with toasted almonds accompanies.
Pastas impress as well, especially the wide ribbons of papardelle in pulpy tomato purée laced with 'shrooms, pesto and crumbled house-made sausage. Note to server: thanks for asking, but Parmesan is never sprinkled on top of squid linguine, its dilled dairy cream sauce laced with garden peas and spring onion notwithstanding.
Pizzas need help. It may be "hand-stretched" and made from "potato dough," but the house pie - an odd pairing of shrimp, prosciutto and very sweet fresh fig - doesn't quite gel. The Three Seasons goes a more traditional route, topped with bottled artichokes, "wild" mushrooms that look decidedly domestic to me and more of the house's mild sausage.
Dressed with artichoke, soft chèvre and mushy cubes of boiled potato instead of thinly sliced spuds, Cucina's take on Pizza Bianca is literally a mess. Tasting like potatoes mashed with oily pesto on a soggy crust, it's the kitchen's only slip.
We finish with crespelle ($8), a considerable wedge of sky-high torte made up of 20 layers of folded almond crepes dolloped with correctly unsweetened whipped cream and a final dusting of confectioner's sugar. A little one-dimensional, it could use a fruit compote counterpoint.
Unlike his previous spot, Bruyea's new joint looks like a winner. Factor in first-time chef Michael Lamos's beautifully presented lineup, friendly service and generous portions for the price point and this Cucina becomes a kitchen worth catching.