URBANO (942 Queen West, at Shaw, 416-532-5088) Complete dinners for $30 per person (brunches $22), including all taxes, tip and a glass of house wine. Average main $8. Open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday 5 to 10 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Pity the poor dishwashers. not only do they have some of the worst-paid jobs in the restaurant industry, but ever since dining out in a cutting-edge bistro became synonymous with small plates of tapas, their workload has tripled. Case in point: Urbano, a weeks-old spot on the west side, where the specialty of the house is Italian tapas. And why not? We’ve already seen Japanese, Chinese and nuevo Latino interpretations of the Spanish bar snack. How long till some enterprising resto on Roncesvalles figures out that pierogi are tapas?
Urbano has inherited the Queen West storefront that was previously home to Sugar, Susanne Dettmer’s popular brunch destination that quietly closed this summer after a nearly 10-year run. Regulars will be relieved to learn that the mirror-lined room remains virtually unchanged, a dozen or so mismatched wooden tables flanked by equally uncoordinated chairs.
A map of southern Italy tacked to one wall points to the short laminated card’s inspiration. Dishes are subdivided by category – Tapateasers, Carnitapas, Vegetapas – and helpfully described as “appetizer-sized portions meant to be enjoyed individually or shared with a group,” for those unfamiliar with the concept. Since there are three of us tonight – the optimum number for a tapas sampling – we start with six of them.
If we had known that a complimentary basket of thickly sliced Italian bread accompanied by a ramekin of pureed white bean was going to show up first, we wouldn’t have ordered crostini ($7), even if they do come with additional black olive tapenade – tapa-nade, surely – garlicky hummus and parsley-fied olive oil. And while we appreciate their sprinkling of crushed red chili flake, there’s far too much of the fiery stuff.
Magic Mushrooms ($7) – actually a lone portobello cap stuffed with sun-dried tomato and topped with molten chèvre – would be much tastier if it hadn’t arrived lukewarm, a fate shared by several of our choices on both visits. Potate ($4) turns out to be half a dozen slices of baked paprika-dusted spuds, while rings of calamari ($8) can’t help but border on rubbery once they’ve been battered à la Captain Highliner and deep-fried.The kitchen gets back on track with the pastas – Pastapas, rather – especially the house version, a cheesy pile of whole wheat penne tossed with tomato, rapini, artichoke and Asiago ($9). And beefy bresaola meatballs ($8) come conveniently three to a plate, sauced with a marvellously simple tomato puree. More, please!
But we could do without serving plates the size of saucers and a radio tuned to E-Z Rock that makes less than ideal dinner music. And puff pastry stuffed with mousse ain’t chocolate cannoli ($3) in my book.
A few days later, we’re back for brunch. Eggs Benedictapas ($7) finds sheets of paper-thin prosciutto over a pair of perfectly poached eggs on Calabrese loaf, sauced with lemony hollandaise.
Think of Frittatapas as pizza-style omelettes, the Vegeterano ($10) dressed with grilled zucchini, eggplant and goat cheese, while Pastapas Carbonara – fab fettucini tossed with as much fluffy scrambled egg as prosciutto and Parmesan ($9) – would be a knockout if it weren’t room temperature.
So-called Contornitapas also show promise. Densely packed Italian sausage ($4) comes grilled and splayed, a side salad of mesclun and radicchio gets doused with traditional evo vinaigrette ($3), and a mound of coarsely ground polenta ($3) dressed with shaved Asiago deserves to be on the dinner menu. Only container orange juice ($3) and the Cat Stevens CD that interminably plays throughout our meal disappoint.
Urbano has a lot to recommend. Servers are welcoming and the kitchen is more than capable, even if some plates come out cold. Owner Robert Cristello tells me the building doesn’t have a furnace, a situation he hopes to rectify. That would explain the space heaters scattered about the room and the heavy blankets over the door blocking the Arctic chill.
But by the time summer rolls around and its 30-seat backyard patio opens, Urbano could be one of the hottest boîtes on the Queen West strip.