PIZZA RUSTICA (270 Welington West, at Blue Jays Way, 416-260-0200) Complete meals for $30 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $14. Open Monday to Thursday 11:30 am to midnight, Saturday and Sunday noon to midnight. Closed some holidays. Licensed. Delivery. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
South of the King West turista strip where 905ers grab a quick bite before the Phantom's 8 o'clock curtain, the restos that ring the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre also attract a suburban clientele.
But forget the theatah. Here, the hoi polloi come to cheer for the home team and the occasional monster truck. A meat 'n' potatoes crowd, they line up for chicken wings at St. Louis (313 Bremner, at Navy Wharf, 416-883-8983) and till-3 pm breakfasts at Cora's (277 Wellington West, at Blue Jays Way, 416-598-2672) garnished with more fruit than a Pride Day float.
Pizza Rustica proves the exception. It's still a mob scene most weekday lunches, and a veritable zoo come game day, but this four-year-old delivers solid Italian pastas and pies with considerable aplomb. And though it might look like an Olive Garden (dig that 90s wiggly wrought-iron decor!), Rustica deserves a wider audience.
My culinary crew begins with Cajun Calamari ($10), remarkably tender rings of cornmeal-dusted and deep-fried squid over greens coupled with whipped garlic aioli and regulation hot sauce.
Salads receive a split decision. As it gets its name from the Italian word for strawberries, I'm not surprised the Fragola includes them along with a tasty mix of crumbled chèvre and candied pecans, all in a creamy poppy-seed dressing. They're served on what the menu describes as a bed of exotic greens. Everyday supermarket mesclun, more like.
Sadly, the Caprese (both $10) fumbles the ball, more mesclun tossed with slim slices of bland bocconcini, not terribly ripe Roma tomato and what the menu describes as "sun-dried tomato and oregano vinaigrette" but we call Zesty Italian.
Rustica kicks it old-school with Italian-style Wedding Soup ($4), a retro marriage of hearty chicken broth, pearl barley and miniature meatballs. As if on steroids, these same meaty nuggets quadruple in size when paired with the house's sweetly fresh tomato sauce over spaghetti ($11).
But we're not here for a dish we can duplicate at home for $1.50 tops. Pizzas are obviously what Rustica is all about, and the namesake pie gets it exactly right a thin cracker crust brushed with sauce and layered with skinny lengths of somewhat salty prosciutto, sliced button mushrooms, roasted red pepper and lotsa mozza' ($13).
The Pollo Alfredo comes adorned with so-called Cajun chicken in addition to diced tomato, diagonally slivered scallion, sautéed "shrooms and a scarcity of cheese. Other than the ability to induce heartburn, what's Cajun about it?
We're relieved to learn that Rustica's version of Philly Cheesesteak Pizza (both $14) topped with tenderized steak and crunchy bell pepper forgoes traditional Cheez Whiz for cheddar and mozzarella, every slice a winner.
But why are Rustica's crusts properly charred underneath and blistered around the edges fluorescent orange? Could the cause be tomato or turmeric? Paprika, perhaps?
"It's yellow food colouring," says our cheerful server. "Don't worry, it's all natural. Sometimes the kitchen gets the colours wrong and the pizzas come out pink!"