Pizzeria Via Mercanti on Elm
87 Elm, at Elizabeth, 416-901-1899, pizzeriaviamercanti.ca
When NOW recently set out to find Toronto's ultimate pizza, it wasn't established heavyweights like Terroni and Queen Margherita that came out on top. Instead, we gave the title to Romolo Salvati's somewhat obscure Kensington Market pizzeria.
His are not the floppy minimalist affairs of the competition. Mercanti's signature pizza is actually two - a thin-crusted wonder dressed with prosciutto crudo, hot soppressata salami, mushrooms and ricotta on the bottom, a second artfully appointed Margherita on the top. We called it the pizza de résistance.
Since winning the top spot, Mercanti has opened a second much larger outpost closer to the downtown core. Show up early - like 9 am - if you plan to score a table on its 60-seat patio during this year's World Cup tournament, especially at lunch, when you can get a mini version of that classic Margherita and a properly ripped romaine side salad for all of $10. We predict pandemonium.
Don't tell anyone, but watch for a third Mercanti to launch on the east side later this fall at the corner of Coxwell and Gerrard.
Monday to Thursday 11 am to 10 pm, Friday 11 am to 11 pm, Saturday noon to 11 pm, Sunday noon to 10 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed.
Agave y Aguacate
35 Baldwin, at Henry, 647-748-6448, agave-y-aguacate.com
No less an authority than Anthony Bourdain claims Francisco Alejandri's remarkable cantina is responsible for "some of the most amazing Mexican takeout north of the border - any border." And this was back when Agave was a low-rent food stall in Kensington Market!
Now ensconced in a real live restaurant with actual tables and chairs and a 20-seat curbside deck in nearby Baldwin Village, the one-time Scaramouche line cook and his new crew make tapas-like plates that are even better than the gregarious TV gourmet could imagine.
Who else would serve lightly poached shrimp ceviche-style over sliced avocado tossed with toasted peanuts and pumpkin seeds, or slowly simmer boneless chicken breasts in a velvety sauce of blanched almonds and raisins before garnishing them with pickled jalapeños and parsley?
Save room for chef's exceptional sweet potato pudding topped with dried fruit and house-made ginger ice cream and a drizzle of Anejo tequila and 40-proof rum. Bourdain doesn't know what he's missing.
Dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 5:30 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. No reservations on patio. Licensed.
1182 Queen E, at Rushbrooke, 416-463-5663, lesliejones.ca
Since opening in 2006, one-time Couillard sous George Wensley's low-key Leslieville bistro has consistently flown under the foodie radar, it's only "serious" review in a certain alternative weekly. His devoted regulars wouldn't have it any other way.
Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to show up unannounced on a balmy Tuesday evening and score a four-top on the drop-dead gorgeous backyard deck. Or actually hear each other's conversations, the only other sound the rustle of the wind in the trees. Such moderately priced starters as meatballs in gorgonzola cream sauce and mains like thin-crusted pizzas dressed with lemony chèvre, roasted leeks and zucchini, followed by flourless chocolate torte for dessert, guarantee first-timers fall in love with Jones from the get-go.
Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed.
1330 Queen W, at Elm Grove, 416-627-3459, grandelectricbar.com
They used to say that if you didn't want to stand in line for a table at downtown's trendiest taqueria, you could show up for a late lunch and waltz right in. Not any more!
These days, GE's just as busy - and as loud! - by the light of day as it is after dark, even more so once its partially covered 40-seat backyard patio is in session.
There, it seems as if le tout Parkdale shout at each other over a curated playlist of 60s gut-bucket soul (management's moved on from 90s hip-hop) as they scarf down designer tacos topped with the likes of pork belly al pastor and deep-fried scrapple while knocking back $4 shots of the bourbon du jour.
Sunday to Thursday noon to midnight, Wednesday to Saturday noon to 1 am. Bar till close. Closed some holidays. No reservations on patio. Licensed.
50C Clinton, at College, 416-792-6002, redsaucetoronto.com
It takes cojones the size of our nonna's meatballs to open an inexpensive old-school Italian trat directly across the street from the Diplomatico, but that didn't stop Scott and Lindsay Selland from converting their way-pricy Acadia and its avant-garde tasting menus into precisely that.
No, the Sauce's curbside terrace isn't as sunny as the competition's, but the new kid's no-frills kitchen is twice as tasty. Where once customers dined fine on red snapper étouffée with chlorophyll at linen-draped tables, they now tuck into pig-knuckle panini and massive platters of eggplant parmigiana heaped with spicy broccoli rabe at tables topped with red gingham. All that's missing are Chianti bottles and dripping candles.
Think of boozy Popcorn Floats made with aged El Dorado rum and caramel-corn ice cream for dessert as the icing on the cake.
Daily 11 am to 2 am. Closed some holidays. No reservations on patio. Licensed.