L'Unita team revamps beloved steak house into a sleek trattoria, complete with amaro cart
Giulietta (972 College, at Rusholme, 416-964-0606) is a transformation of Rob Rossi’s restaurant Bestellen, which previously occupied Giulietta’s long, narrow dining room in Little Italy.
Rossi was coming up on the five-year mark of running the cozy, modern steak house last year when he pulled the plug, prompting outcry from neighbourhood diners.
“It was easy for me to close it, only because I had lived it for five years. I did everything I wanted to do there,” Rossi says.
“For me, a part of it lives on, because we still have the space. I’m still inside my own restaurant every day.”
In a turbulent industry, Rossi said it was important for him to go out on his own terms. Plus, he and Giulietta front-of-house manager David Minicucci (L’Unita) were already cooking up some new plans.
Rossi took over the kitchen at L’Unita a couple of years ago, and as Bestellen wound down, the two friends embarked on a road trip through the U.S., gathering inspiration for their next move by hitting every great Italian restaurant they could find.
“We wanted to have a simple, beautiful restaurant,” Rossi says. “A lot of the dishes we do are about taking a step back, trying to make them elegant, and putting the best stuff on the plate we can. Italian food has been done up so much. Sometimes we need to take a couple steps back and just see it for what it is, which is cooking from the heart.”
Giulietta’s menu stands in stark contrast to the beefy offerings at Bestellen. “It’s very light on the meat side, on the protein side, and focuses a little more on vegetables and on sharing,” Rossi says.
“There’s a lot of small plates. We envisioned it to be like a family-style menu, where everyone’s putting plates everywhere and can just go at it. Obviously the pastas and pizzas are a big part of the menu – you can’t have an Italian restaurant without them.”
Simplicity and lightness were also at the heart of the restaurant’s design, which was handled by Guido Costantino (who also created the interiors at Bar Buca). Sleek fluorescent lighting and tons of white marble lend an airier vibe than the warren-like Bestellen, with some cool textural touches added via oxidized red metal and pale grey wool-upholstered accent walls (which, apparently, need to be ironed periodically).
Beverage director Toni Weber extended that philosophy to the drinks list. “We wanted it to reflect what Rob’s doing in the kitchen – super-simple but very approachable and globally appealing, easy flavours, nothing too complicated,” she says.
The wine list is Old World-heavy, with emphasis placed on affordable bottles. “We want to make it easy for people to have a bottle on the table and not feel priced out of the list – really embracing that Italian hospitality,” Weber says.
None of the cocktails have more than three or four ingredients, with most of them based on classic Italian aperitivi. The real showstopper is the amaro cart, featuring plenty of options imported directly by the restaurant from Italy after picking your poison, you can get it made into a spritz or served on its own.
Weber says she wanted to take a hands-off, guest-first approach. During her time in Toronto’s food and drink scene, she’s often found the focus to be “less and less about the guest, hospitality and what’s best for people enjoying your space, and more about the bartender, the alchemy, the magic, the show.”
On this, too, she and Rossi are singing from the same choir sheet. “It’s not really about David and me,” Rossi says. “I think a lot of chefs’ restaurants are too much about the chef — there’s always a crazy backstory. I’d like people to say, ‘I wanna go to Giulietta,’ not ‘I wanna go to Giulietta to see Rob.’ I think the restaurant should be more important than me.”
The radicchio di Castelfranco ($16) features bitter radicchio topped with chopped spy apples, hazelnuts, mild Gorgonzola dolce, three-year-aged vinegar and olive oil.
Local lake smelts feature prominently in the fritto misto ($21), along with shrimp, calamari, crispy chickpeas and saffron aioli.
Grilled octopus ($20) – already becoming a menu favourite – is served on a bed of white beans and topped with Sicilian salmoriglio (a sauce made of lemon, olive oil and herbs).
Scarpinocc (“little shoes,” $22) are filled with sharp, funky Taleggio cheese and smothered in a buttery sauce with hen o’ the woods mushrooms.
A recent addition to the menu is the pan-seared halibut ($33) with asparagus, sweet peas, lemon and guanciale.
The Giulietta Spritz cocktail ($12), made with Bèrto Aperitivo, Prosecco and soda, comes flanked with a vintage saucer from Alitalia’s first-class section to hold your garnishes.
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