MARCELLO'S (1163 St. Clair West, at Dufferin, 416-656-6159) How this outstanding old-school trat has flown under the foodie radar for 15 years mystifies. Substantial salads, simple yet satisfying grills, customized pasta and possibly the best pizza in town, all at shockingly reasonable prices in a room built for comfort, make this friendly nabe noshery a true find. Complete dinners for $30 per person ($17 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of vino. Open daily 9 am to 10:30 pm. Licensed. Access: short step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
roll over, terroni. a new champ's claimed your title. Though there's nothing terribly avant-garde about Marcello's pizza toppings -- no duck confit or shiitake 'shrooms on pies here -- its simple combinations are truly stellar. There are far fancier pasta 'n' pizza pits on College. But Marcello's has an atmosphere that can't be ordered from a pricey interior designer. Sure, some of it's cornball -- the faux ruins painted on the wall, a shades-of-Floyd collapsing glass brick wall that reveals a wood-burning pizza oven in the back, popera on the CD player -- but other elements go beyond the stereotype. Things like friendly, just-attentive-enough service, comfortable cane-seated chairs and unadorned tables that don't wobble. Oh, and did we mention the best pizza in town?
Take the Fazzoletto ($6.95). It's not an obscure Verdi opera about a vengeful, overweight buffoon. Think of this dish as a folded pizza turnover (the name comes from the Italian for handkerchief) that's been stuffed with layers of creamy goat cheese, smooth ricotta, silky spinach and sun-dried tomato paste.
This ain't no panzerotti: over top, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a toss of raw minced garlic add rustic punctuation. Underneath, a bed of bitter mesclun strewn with ripe black olives completes a starter that's big enough to split or have on its own as a super supper.
Either way, it's impressive. And so's nearly everything on the old-school Italian menu at Marcello's, a nearly 15-year-old trat that's somehow escaped the attention of rabid foodies.
Not that locals aren't in the know. Where else can they get a decent plate of pasta and a glass of wine for 20 bucks? No wonder there's a steady stream of takeout diners at all hours, and lineups out the door on weekends.
And why not? The best of the pizzas (#17, Mimmo, $9.95) features nutty Asiago, pungent Gorgonzola, mellow mozzarella, strands of spinach and the kick of roasted garlic. A knockout.
These 12-inch beauties' oven-fired crusts lift Marcello's even further above the competition. Cracker-thin, they emerge from the oven golden and lightly charred, their garlicky-delicious surface as blistered as Vesuvius. Bite into one and see the rocky cliffs of Sicily. They're brushed with olive oil before they're dressed, so every last piece is sensational. There won't be leftovers.
A starter, Pizza di Parma ($7.95) couldn't be more straightforward -- a plain pie dusted with garlic, parsley, smoky, tissue-thin prosciutto crudo and Asiago -- or tastier.
Stracciatella Fiorentina ($3.95) sees flavour-intense chicken broth brimming with spinach, Roma tomato and scrambled egg-drop. By comparison, Insalata Cesare ($5.50/$7.95) comes across as run-of-the-mill, but Marcello's namesake Insalata ($6.95) couldn't be more exemplary, a dense tangle of hand-picked mesclun showered with sharp Asagio shavings.
Marcello's antipasto ($9.95) -- buttery balls of bocconcini, sliced provolone, prosciutto and peppery soppresata, both whole sun-dried and sectioned ripe Roma tomatoes (see Secret Ingredient), roasted red pepper strips, black and green olives, marinated mushrooms, grilled zucchini and eggplant -- creates the kind of light snack that's easily devoured over drinks along with the flour-dusted Molisana house baguette.
Of the more than a dozen offerings on the pasta card -- and, like the pizzas, they can all be customized -- Linguine con Gamberi ($12.95) finds perfectly al dente noodles swimming in a sauce laced with seafood liquor, grilled leeks and eight large, butterflied tail-on shrimp.
Stuffed with mild ricotta, Tortellone alla Piemontese ($10.95) is steeped in a potent brandy-and-tomato cream punctuated with cubed prosciutto and thick button mushroom wedges. Lovely.
A short list of secondi includes the expected salmon and chicken grills (Pollo alla Griglia, $11.95, and Salmone al Ferri, $13.95). All of them can be found elsewhere, but Marcello's does them with unusual finesse. A 10-ounce strip loin (Bistecca alla Griglia, $14.95) arrives pink-centred medium-rare as requested and sided with red-jacket potatoes, red peppers, crisp green beans and charbroiled cauliflower doused with olive oil and butter. As does Involtini di Pollo ($13.95), a massive boneless breast stuffed with ricotta and spinach in a boozy mushroom cream.k
If Marcello's grub sounds marvellous so far, keep in mind, too, that most of the menu is also available in half-sized/half-priced kids' portions, a litre of Galvanina fizzy water's priced at a reasonable $4.95 and a first-rate espresso Americano goes for $1.75.
Mamma mia, indeed.