Owner/chef Craig Harding preps his burrata cheese and roasted grapes at Campagnolo, his new eatery co-owned with Alexandra Hutchison.
CAMPAGNOLO (832 Dundas West, at Euclid, 416-364-4785, campagnolotoronto.com) Complete dinners for $55 per person, including all taxes, tip and a cocktail. Average tapas $12. Open for dinner Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 6 pm to midnight, Friday and Saturday 6 pm to 1 am. Closed Monday, Tuesday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Victorian storefront cafes are so passé. And while location, location, location will always be number one in the resto biz, these days it's the quirkiness of said locale that really gets you noticed.
We've seen Buca in a boiler room down an alleyway, Woodlot in a side-street garage, and Parts & Labour in a Parkdale hardware store. Pop-ups in unexpected digs like the Drake BBQ are breaking out like acne on a teenage forehead.
Lodged in an abandoned Coffee Time franchise on dumpy Dundas West and temporarily hidden behind a graffiti-covered construction trailer complete with port-a-potty, Craig Harding's month-old Campagnolo may be the weirdest one yet.
Inside, you discover a warm candlelit Mediterranean-style room, terracotta tile underfoot, pine paneling overhead, the obligatory crystal chandeliers. Tables are bare and decoration understated except for an intentionally ugly velour sofa by the door that could have escaped from a Portuguese rec room up the street. And with all that wraparound glass, the 66-seat room can be a little drafty. Bring a blanket.
Though co-owner/chef Harding was last spotted two years ago doing silly expense-account spa food at Four in the Commerce Court concourse, he and partner Alexandra Hutchinson now take their cue from the street.
"Why do I have to go anywhere?" asks Harding. "It's all right here."
He finds it with delicately battered artichoke hearts ($7) à la Enoteca Sociale, followed by crusty house-baked Epi baguette and eggy hollow gougères ($4). While eye-catching, they provide little help in mopping up the lovely chicken stock brodo used to braise tender shreds of rabbit served with wilted rapini and toasted pine nuts ($8).
Harding brings in fresh burrata from Vaughan - does it get any more local than that? - and spreads it on thick slices of Italian loaf before dressing them with slow-roasted grapes still on the vine ($12). Chef pays tribute to his Woodbridge roots with garlicky skewers of charcoal-smoked Ontario lamb spiedini ($10), the equal of any backyard nonno's.
Even though the table next to us goes the traditional starter-entrée-dessert route, we've opted to share Campagnolo's rustic neo-European card. It's lid removed, a steaming Le Creuset casserole reveals a deliriously rich slow-cooked stew of meaty white cannellini beans, fall-from-the-hoof smoked pork hock and the ends from the pasta machine, a few purple leaves of the kind of decorative kale you usually happen upon in a planter on a front porch as garnish ($16).
Another collision of deliciously contrasting textures, an intensely flavoured ragu peppered with chunks of wild boar, rubbery strips of tripe and mamma mia meatballs rides a buttery bed of coarsely ground polenta ($22).
Maybe it's because our hearts are set on sold-out salty caramel sticky toffee that the just-like-grandma's square of old-school almond cake (both $8) fails to excite, even if it is made with olive oil and sided with house-made cinnamon ice cream.
There's work to be done. Servers are still finding their feet, one minute in your face and embarrassingly intrusive ("Oh c'mon, have a glass of wine," one unknowingly chides a non-drinker with health issues), the next nowhere to be seen.
And the random iPod shuffle of Neil Young to Beck through the Chili Peppers to the inevitable Motown golden oldies needs a tweaking and a decent set of speakers. And then there's the matter of that damned port-a-potty parked out front.
But when a summer-breeze cocktail made with Aperol aperitif and rhubarb bitters and named for Claudia Cardinale goes for nine bucks, who sweats the little things?