Inside Il Covo, a modern Italian spot in Little Italy

Ex-Buca chef does caviar-dunked sandwiches and smoking oyster platters


Il Covo (585 College, at Clinton) was created to be a casual Italian cicchetteria (small-plates restaurant say it chee-ket-a-ria). 

“We just wanted to have a friendly place with a vibrant and cozy atmosphere,” says chef and co-owner Ryan Campbell.

And it is casual, but in a way that feels acutely Italian only nel bel paese would your Tuesday-night place have cut glassware, filigree wall treatments, Venetian plastering and plush velvet drapes.

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Natalia Manzocco

The old-world feel of Il Covo may stem, at least in part, from the influence of co-owner Giuseppe Marchesini, who hails from the southern Italian region of Basilicata.

“He’s a wizard in my opinion – just an encyclopedia of Italian food and wine,” says Campbell, who met Marchesini when the duo helped co-open the King West location of Buca

“We’ve always got along and shared the same philosophy from day one, and always joked and spoke about having a restaurant of our own one day. As much as we love the style of Buca, which we’re so accustomed to, we wanted to do something slightly different.”

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Natalia Manzocco

That meant an emphasis on half-size portions to encourage experimental ordering, as well as sustainable sourcing (they work with Hooked, 100km Foods, Royal Produce, Grassroot Organics and many others) and a strong sense of modernity mixed with traditional preparations. 

“We kind of reinvent old classics, and sometimes we also like to create things right off the top of our heads,” Campbell says.

“That’s another way for us to go that isn’t really worrying about the referencing – we just do whatever we like with an Italian approach. We consider ourselves a little bit contemporary, a little bit modern in terms of Italian cuisine.”

Here’s a closer look at a few of Il Covo’s dishes.

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Natalia Manzocco

Kusshi oysters from B.C. ($12) are served with bright-yellow lemon and saffron pearls and a little chopped fennel. For a little extra flair, Campbell nestles some dry ice below the bed of rocks.

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The must-order seafood linguine ($16) feature Manila clams, calamari, mussels and scallops on a bed of Verrigni-brand pasta sourced from Abruzzo.

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Natalia Manzocco

Another highlight: a tramezzino (Italian for sliced-bread sandwich) stuffed with scallops and B.C. side-stripe shrimp ($15). Each sandwich half gets dunked in smoked lemon mayo and coated in fresh chives, with more mayo for dipping on the side. Feeling splashy? For an extra $45, add on a scoop of Acadian wild sturgeon caviar.

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Natalia Manzocco

Campbell brines USDA Prime brisket from Creekstone Farms in Kansas ($18) for 24 hours before it’s seared and braised. On the side: A crisp and a puree made from Ontario-grown black salsify, plus a sauce spiked with nerizia, a licorice-flavoured Calabrian liqueur.

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From the dessert menu: The “fiorellino” ($9), a crisp pastry floret served on a bed of poached and braised Ontario rhubarb, topped with a few leaves of chocolate mint and a healthy pour of caramelized white chocolate.

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The signature drink, borrowed from the Italian region of Valle d’Aosta, is the “caffè dell’amicizia” or coffee of friendship ($15), served in a communal wooden vessel with several drinking spouts. It’s spiked with cinnamon, Grand Marnier, brown sugar and grappa – and then lit on fire.

If that sounds too intense, they also make a nice Negroni.

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Natalia Manzocco

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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