MARGERITA (150 Dundas West, at Elizabeth, 416-977-7333) Complete dinners for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a $4 domestic beer. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 1 am, Sunday noon to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
The squirt bottle of Srirachi hot sauce at the takeout counter is the first clue that Margerita, a two-year-old Italian trat hard by the bus terminal, does things a little differently. The proof comes with its incredible pies, whose crisp crust is so delicious that the olive-oil-brushed bread is served undressed except for a crush of fresh herbs alongside Margerita's mains as focaccia.
And then, when we discover that this unfortunately ugly spot (think down-market 80s Olive Garden) is owned by Ken Nguyen, who's also responsible for King Slice, the Bloor West pizzeria that the Drake's David Chrystian clued us to a while back, the pieces of this epicurean puzzle fall into place. This is suburban North American Italian food prepared with Vietnamese finesse.
Take Margerita's humongous slices ($3.99 each). Though the pepperoni and deluxe versions reference Pizza Pizza, the Margerita finds all the correct classic elements in place (oregano-kicked vegetarian tomato sauce and lotsa gooey mozza), tweaked Southeast Asian-style with large leaves of basil. The Arrabbiata hits even harder, its thick melted mozzarella topping tossed with marinated mushrooms and 1-inch sections of grilled jalapeño, seeds, stems and all.
From the gourmet pizza lineup, our favourite is the Trevisano ($12 11-inch/$16 13-inch/$20 15-inch/$24 18-inch), a spectacular thin-crusted pie littered with caramelized rings of sweet balsamic-marinated red onion, grilled cubes of chicken breast, minimal bocconcini and a house pesto that's nutty and vibrant.
The sensational crust comes as focaccia on the side paired with spaghetti and meatballs ($9.50), another case of East meets West, slippery al dente noodles combining with fresh, pulpy sauce and dense ground beef nuggets that recall Chinese har gow dumplings.
We'll cut Margerita some slack on its so-called mushroom risotto (Italian rice, the menu informs us), which arrives at table 15 minutes after it's ordered. Let's call it a substantial and tasty dish of short-grain Asian-style rice in a Gorgonzola cream thick with leeks and button, oyster, portobello and Chinese 'shrooms. Vitello Picatta (both $12.50) finds tender veal medallions in a lovely lemon sauce, sided with excellent roasted potato and remarkably non-mushy steamed carrots, cauliflower and broccoli as well as a basket of that fantastic focaccia.
The house Caesar ($5.50) improves on Biagio's by adding shaved Parmesan, random strands of Spanish onion and terrific focaccia croutons, but not all of the multiculti experimentation works. Tiramisu ($3.99), a beige booze-challenged sponge sifted with cocoa, is just as badly executed as that at nearly every Cal-Ital trat in town.
And did we mention that the pizza is very, very good?