LOCAL KITCHEN (1710 Queen West, at Roncesvalles, 416-534-6700) Complete dinners for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $15. Open Tuesday and Wednesday 5:30 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm, Sunday 5:30 to 10 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Every restaurant has a mission - for most, to make as much money as possible, then get out quick - but Local Kitchen wears its heart on its sleeve.
It starts with the proudly Parkdale bistro's name, "Local" telegraphing first-time restaurateurs Michael Sangregorio and Fabio Bondi's devotion to the locavore movement, "Kitchen" their support for the Slow Food cause. They nod to the snout-to-tail charcuterie revival by offering a 10-course salumi 'n' cheese tasting ($50).
Located at the far end of Queen West - next stop Hamilton - the former antique store has been transformed into a jewel box of a boîte, an intimate 28-seat room warmed by candlelight that makes it feel timeless. Retro chandeliers throw shadows on exposed brick walls, tables are bare, and chairs are of the church basement stacking variety. A line of laundry hangs from the ceiling. Very Gio's 1995.
Local Kitchen's got a chill retro vibe.
To complete the Woodbridge rec room vibe, Sangregorio spins vintage 80s vinyl on a stereo set up in the open kitchen, Boy George wondering why everyone wants to hurt him, Frankie suggesting that we relax before we come.
Suitably chilled, we show up early this Tuesday eve. Since Local doesn't take reservations for groups smaller than six, we're expecting a lineup of slobbering foodies out the door, but we're the first to arrive. An hour later, the room's full.
A chalkboard advertises a few specials - plain buttered pasta with truffles ($10 a shave) - while a short card of rustic southern Italian tapas-style dishes comes on a clipboard like at Brad Moore's School. Good thing we're packing flashlights or we wouldn't be able to read them.
To get in the mood, we begin with a round of bacon-infused bourbon cocktails on the rocks (Penny's Cousin, $8). As they don't particularly smack of pig or their advertised maple syrup, grapefruit juice and bitters, we switch to a full-bodied Italian shiraz (06 Feudo d'Elimi, $9 glass/$38 bottle) from Sangregorio's oddly anthropomorphic wine list. ("My name is southern Italy and I'm very happy to meet you!")
We follow with a six-pack of tangy panko-dusted green olives stuffed with rabbit ($5) and a plate of creamy bufala burrata ($10) that's been puzzlingly mashed to resemble cottage cheese. It's still quite tasty spread on toasted ciabatta. A salad of bitter radicchio tossed with sweetly roasted squash and hazelnuts in barely there Gorgonzola vinaigrette ($10) seems to be missing its advertised Lolla Rossa red lettuce, but it's so dark in here, who can tell?
Stuffed cherry peppers top Local Kitchen's tapas list.
Our inner Soprano opts for chef Bondi's handmade ziti ($8 small/$12 large). Doused in the house heirloom tomato sauce spiked with mellow peperoncino peppers, it's sadly not baked à la Carmela and tastes assembled rather than slow-cooked. However, Local's Swiss chard pappardelle dressed with shredded pheasant and parmigiano ($10/$15) would have been a hit if we hadn't scarfed a far more elegant version at Loire a few weeks earlier.
Bondi's secondi also impress, especially his perfectly timed Ontario whitefish over Brussels sprouts and fried pig's jowl guanciale ($15), and medium-rare slices of Kerr Farms flatiron steak garnished with a sunny-side-up quail egg and a handful of roasted patatini spuds ($16). Shame that tonight's dessert is limited to a Queen of Tarts (283 Roncesvalles, at Westminster, 416-651-3009) pumpkin tart ($8) that goes for almost half the price up the street.
Local Kitchen's wow factor may be muted, but its intentions are right on the money. Plus, its shared plates, nostalgic dinner music and dim lighting are made for romance. Just remember to bring a flashlight.