NEGRONI (492 College, at Palmerston, 416-413-0005) Open Tuesday to Saturday 11:30 am to 9 pm, Sunday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
You'd think that when the day eventually came when Bill Sweete and Casey Bee - the dynamic duo behind the wildly successful Sidecar on College - opened a second restaurant, they'd simply have cloned the original: Sidecar: the $24 Prix Fixe Sequel.
Instead, they've recently partnered with former Frank sous Melissa Halloran to launch Negroni, a panini shop in the heart of Little Italy. Coals to Newcastle - certamente!
"There just wasn't anywhere to get a good Italian sandwich," says Sweete. "We travel a lot, and Toronto doesn't know real panini."
The folks behind the lunch counter at nearby California Sandwiches (244 Claremont, at Treford, 416-603-3317, and several others) will likely disagree, but Negroni's definitely doing something different: the $10 grilled cheese/designer salad combo.
The room's as fashionable as the kitchen concept, with an awning-covered curbside patio out front and a second garden deck out back. Formerly home to Airport, Fruition and what seems like a gazillion other spots, including a driver licensing office, the breezy functional space now sports campy movie posters on the walls (The Iron Sheriff, Guns Don't Argue, Girl In Trouble) and a facade of glass that opens to the passing street scene.
The menu's also to the point, just four salads, a dozen or so panini and a limited wine list, including a bottle of 07 Sangiovese Farnese that goes for $7.55 at the LCBO priced at 20 bucks, a markup of only 265 per cent instead of the usual 300. The truly cheap can add a couple of cans of Limonata ($2) to the already fruity Abruzzi chianti and get twice as much Tinto de Verano, the chic Spanish spritzer.
We not so pecunious types spring for 750 ml bottles of Galvanina mineral water ($4) before tucking into tapas-like rounds of grilled polenta dolloped with creamy salt cod brandade and tart preserved lemon. Leaving out the traditional hard-boiled egg, a riff on salade niçoise offers chunks of meaty house-cured tuna, French-cut green beans, seeded slices of halved English cucumber, baby Roma tomatoes, a handful of capers and a forest of fresh basil leaves in a deliciously lemony vinaigrette (both $10).
All of Negroni's amply proportioned panini come composed, buttered and pressed on crusty ciabatta sourced from Boulart, the artisanal Montreal bakery that supplies chi-chi McEwan's, Whole Foods and, er, Metro supermarkets. Best of the bunch, wonderfully elastic buffalo mozzarella gets coupled with juicy oven-dried tomatoes and pungent basil pesto ($12). Segovia of Kensington Market provides the Chilean sausage that accompanies buttery fontina and sweet caramelized onions slow-roasted in honey and balsamic vinegar ($11).
"I prefer it spicier, but it's the most Italian-tasting chorizo they make," says Halloran.
Blander palates will be comforted by panini stacked with thyme-roasted chicken breast, bitter arugula, more fontina and garlicky red pepper mayo ($11), while old-schoolers won't be able to resist just-like-Marie's bresaola with devilishly pickled eggplant ($10) or La Ferme's prosciutto paired paradoxically with soft Taleggio and al dente asparagus spears ($11).
A lesser sandwich joint would keep customers satisfied with a side of prefab No Frills mesclun straight out of a box. Not so Negroni, which serves all of its considerable sandwiches sided with a terrific mix of watercress and arugula layered with half-moons of shaved fennel and Parmigiano-Reggiano in a sweet shallot vinaigrette.
Only Negroni's house-made ice cream ($5) disappoints - but only because the kitchen's much-ballyhooed peanut butter flavour is sold out and all that's left is boring old vanilla.