Glitterati go for Gusto

They're streaming in for creative takes on Italian plates

GUSTO 101 (101 Portland, at Adelaide West, 416-504-9669, Complete dinners for $40 per person (lunches/brunches $30) including tax, tip and a glass of house vino. Average main $18/$14. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to close Saturday and Sunday 11 am to close, brunch till 3 pm. Reservations noon and 6 pm seatings only. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN

Our apologies, Grand Electric. And you, too, Yours Truly.

Your days as Toronto’s most unattainable table are over, usurped by Gusto 101, the nuova Italian trat just off the King West condo strip. No one’s more surprised than the two-month-old resto’s owner, Janet Zuccarini.

“We’ve been packed since the moment we peeled the paper off the front window,” says the self-described “smart cookie.” “I’m still in shock!”

Zuccarini’s plan was to launch a downtown spinoff of her Yorkville pasta ‘n’ pizza spot, Trattoria Nervosa. She figured the new joint would take at least a couple of months to catch on. Instead, the 125-seat former chop shop has been wall-to-wall glitterati from the get-go. ‘Course it helps to be within spitting distance of the Spoke Club.

“We have lineups at 1 am Saturday nights,” says Zuccarini.

There’s no queue at Thursday noon, but there will be by the time we make our exit 90 minutes later. Not that the industrial Munge Leung-designed space isn’t seriously slammed. By half past, there isn’t an empty seat in the house. And loud! The tall-ceilinged room’s been purposefully built to have a buzz, all exposed concrete block and artfully rusted steel surfaces.

But service is quick, and soon we’re laying waste to a brown paper bag of house-baked baguette and a saucer of buttery olive oil splashed with tart balsamic vinegar. Pair it with chef Daniel Mezzolo’s stellar wood-grilled octopus ($13.50) over crisp haricot vert in a pool of citrusy basil vinaigrette mined with black olive tapenade and go home a happy camper.

A veritable Vesuvius of arugula comes dressed with roasted plum tomatoes, sliced avocado and a good 6 ounces of medium-rare flank (Tagliata di Manzo, $15.95), more main than starter. Another salad of wilted kale with currants and pine nuts in lemony vinaigrette (Cavolo Nero, $11.95) seems like a half-portion by comparison.

Moroccan-spiced chicken ($17.95) gets sided with spinach, smoked paprika-dusted spuds and optional spring asparagus ($6.95), while Spaghetti Chitarra alle Vongole ($14.95) tossed with a dozen manila clams might as well be summer on a plate. So far, so Gusto good. Zuccarini’s pizzas, however, are an altogether different kettle of calamari.

Strange that a pizzaiolo certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana installs a wood-burning grill but an electric oven. And so we get chewy thin-crusted ‘za topped with kale and thinly sliced sweet potato, its advertised local fior di latte gone AWOL (Da Dee, $13.50). Suckling pig Pizza Farcite – pizza stuffed with porchetta ($11.50 with organic greens) – turns out to be a roast pork sandwich, albeit Italian-style with rapini and roasted peppers.

Some are significantly better, most notably the San Marzano tomato-sauced pies finished with veal meatballs and smoked provolone (Polpette, $14.95) and the brunch-only Pizza all’Uova ($13.95) with Pingue speck, chili oil and runny free-range eggs. Make sure to save room for Cioccolato (all desserts $3.95), a chocolate mousse-like pudding swirled with caramel parfait, crushed biscotti, flaky sea salt and a shot of olive oil from the Zuccarini family grove back in Abruzzi.

Worth an up-to-two-hour wait to share face time with the likes of Seamus O’Regan and Belinda Stronach? Not in these books. But now that 101 takes reservations for its noon and 6 pm seatings and not just a select few tables as previously, we’ll be back in a flash, especially since it’s terrific 100-seat rooftop deck opens any day now.

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