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BAR BUCA (75 Portland, at King West, 416-599-2822, buca.ca, @barbucatoronto) Complete dinners for $40 per person (lunches $30), including tax, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $10. Open daily from 11 am to 2 am; coffee and pastries from 7 am. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN
Bar Buca prides itself on its obscurity. Stand directly in front of the all-day spinoff of the way popular Buca and you'll swear you're looking at the entrance to an underground parking garage, so purposefully anonymous is the three week-old café's facade.
But push through those reflecting glass doors and you find a stylish coffee bar up front where you can grab a quick espresso ($3) and a cannoli ($1.75) at 7 in the morning, and a more cavernous dining room to the rear decked out with poured concrete walls and industrial wine racks that stays open till 2 am every day of the week.
Small wonder Bar Buca's been slammed from the get-go.
We blame co-owner/chef Rob Gentile's moderately priced and eminently shareable Tuscan-style tapas for the commotion. Is there a better bargain than his $15 five-course tasting of starters, exquisite nibbly things like garlicky house-baked bread knots ($3 à la carte), deep-fried cubes of pork cheek dusted with chilies, and biscuit-like tigelle spread unapologetically with rosemary-scented lard (both $4)?
To top it off, he throws in bruschetta dressed with impossibly rich duck yolk, sautéed beech mushrooms and shaved black truffle ($5), and a ciabatta sandwich stuffed with slow-braised ribbons of tender cow's stomach in peppery salsa verde ($6). Some deal!
There's also a fritto misto sampling for $22 that includes tempura smelts ($5), crisp baby artichokes sided with lemony zabaglione custard ($6) and pistachio-crusted arancini rice balls thick with prosciutto cotto and sweet garden peas ($7), not to mention gently battered rock shrimp with spicy 'nduja sausage ($8) and deep-fried testina pig's face in fiery Italian barbecue sauce ($5).
Sandwiches on house-baked focaccia the size of Volkswagen hubcaps are also built to share, our favourites the buttery virgin mozzarella with sweetly preserved cherry tomatoes ($10) and the porchetta complete with crunchy crackling, tender pink loin and fabulously fatty belly ($11).
And if the distinct lack of pasta with either tasty baked littleneck clams rife with nubbins of guanciale and salty pecorino cheese (vongole alla carbonara, $9) or minced goat 'n' ricotta meatballs in a classically simple tomato sauce studded with raisins (polpette di capra, $14) puts you off, you can always bring your own.
Chef's frickin' frico ($10) turns out to be a cheesy gluten-free pizza made with a crust of Montasio cheese and shredded potato topped with basil shoots and a drizzle of water buffalo yogurt, while the dish known as ammazzafegato ($14) might better be described as a skinny house-made liver sausage stew laced with nutty barley-like faro, dehydrated porcini mushrooms, frazzled cavolo nero cabbage and a perfectly slow-poached free-range hen's egg.
Bar Buca also does weekend brunch. Instead of the usual Bennys and French toast, Gentile sends out open-faced duck's egg-yolk omelettes tossed with butterflied rock shrimp and toasted pine nuts (uova rossa, $12). Cinnamon-scented pork-blood crepes come duly sided with boozy poached figs in chocolate sauce and crème anglaise fashioned from buffalo milk (migliaccio, $10).
And who needs dessert when there's mini-stacks of semolina pancakes layered with lemony mascarpone, crumbled pistachio and candied citrus in grappa-fortified maple syrup (crespelle, $9) that recall cannoli?