GIO RANA'S REALLY, REALLY NICE RESTAURANT (1220 Queen East, at Leslie, 416-469-5225) The nose returns to its roots on the east side. Old-school Italia served tapas-style in a gutted bank draws starving locals and hipsters alike. If you fancy Gio's and Five Doors on Yonge or Seven Numbers on Eg West you know the scene. And no one throws food! Complete dinners for $40 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of Chianti. Open Tuesday to Thursday 6 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 6 pm to midnight, Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Closed Monday. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
as banks consolidate and down-size, their discarded branches often evolve into places that are a far cry from their conservative roots. This is especially true along Queen East, where the old TD at Broadview has morphed into jump-up Real Jerk, and on the corner of Leslie, where another 60s modernist glass-and-brick shoebox has had a make-over.
Actually, a make-under. You wouldn't say that restaurateur Gio Rana has spared no expense in decorating his new digs. Known for the Nose and its extended family, Five Doors North and Seven Numbers, Rana has outfitted his new joint on the cheap.
Five Doors hides behind the facade of a futon store, Gio's has a Woodbridge rec-room vibe complete with laundry and bickering relations, and Seven Numbers revels in its burlap- and-chipboard chic. But Really Nice -- no one uses its full handle -- has an intentionally anonymous look.
Sign? What sign? The only signage says "Closed," but the unmarked doors are unlocked. Push them open and meet a second set of glass doors that won't budge. Make a left, then a right, and enter a high-ceilinged room that looks like it's still under construction.
Chains holding chandeliers with exposed wiring drop from partially removed acoustic panels. Thick vinyl wall covering has been ripped rough from the walls, exposing bare sheetrock underneath. Marked with large random numbers -- 13, 69, 08 -- well-spaced tables are topped with clear plastic, their matching chairs on the other side of the room.
An impressive sound system plays the same watered-down funk heard at his other spots. But the volume's reasonable, and at least no one's throwing food like they do at the Nose.
At the rear, the bank vault's been converted into a wine cellar, à la Autogrill. Next to it, under a ham hung from a hook, Joanne Clayton -- a long-time Gio vet -- fronts Really Nice's open kitchen, churning out reliable old-school southern Italian dishes. Consider them Italian tapas ordered à la carte and served in appetizer-sized portions.
A basket of crusty Italian loaf to dunk into extra-virgin olive oil with a balsamic Rorschach blot leads into char-grilled calamari ($5.95), a perfectly cooked, lacerated spiral of squid accented with pale green basil aioli. Four tiny birds -- quail ($5) -- arrive nearly boneless, their sweet, succulent flesh intact over a bed of endive, radicchio and romaine.
From the primi section, Crispelle finds a delizioso quartet of folded crêpes pooled in sage butter and stuffed with sweet butternut squash purée and creamy mascarpone. With its rustic Old World tomato sauce thick with plum tomatoes and onions, spaghetti (both $4.95) couldn't be more cookbook correct -- simplicity itself.
Our secondi: thinly sliced pork tenderloin ($8.95) gets sauced in a balsamic reduction, while eggplant parmigiana ($7.95) -- here listed oh-so-amusingly as "Palmungiane" -- layers two slices of feathery breaded 'plant spooned with more of that fantastic tomato sauce. Three smallish medium-rare lamb chops plated with buttery peas are difficult work for a knife and fork. Despite the lemon-caper mayo dip that makes a great match for battered shrimp and squid, the whitefish that comes with Pesce Misto Fritto (both $9.95) could be less mushy.
Contorni -- sides -- are best forgotten: extremely bitter grilled rapini, overly charred portobello mushroom strips and grilled asparagus that tastes like it's been steamed (all $3.95). Guarantee: leftovers.
Which won't be the case with chocolate polenta cake, an insanely rich dessert garnished with candied citrus, strawberry coulis and crème anglais. It's so addictive you'll want to snort its confectioners' sugar. Similar to crème caramel, Panna Cotta's soothing custardy blandness is blasted with smoky butterscotch. Instead of a plate, it should really come in a low bowl so that every glorious drop can be enjoyed (both $4.95).
From the short wine card, the obvious choice is a bottle of 97 Chianti Classico ($75), a vintage of the Tuscan red that's recognized as the best of its generation.
I assume the showbiz cartoons by one "Chuck" that line the hallway leading to Really Nice's hastily painted loo are portraits of regulars. Then I recognize a caricature of Rod Stewart, though it could be Carole Pope. Are the others Tina Yothers, Sally Struthers or the Smothers brothers?
Please explain, blond waitron. "Gio got them somewhere really cheap."