It’s always good when you go to a group dinner and can order a la carte. One of the biggest frustrations is when you have a set menu in which you can only choose from one of three entrees that are designed and prepared to appease the conservative diner. Beef (usually steak), chicken (usually roasted), fish (usually salmon) and some lame vegetarian entree (usually a regular menu item with the protein removed) populate these set menus. Needless to say, I was elated when I attended a group dinner at gusto 101 and was handed a real menu, with no restrictions or limitations.
Gusto 101 is positioned right beside Jimmy’s coffee on Portland Ave just North of King Street. There was a tremendous amount of hype as its creation materialized about a year ago. Some may call it another Italian restaurant. Others may call it a trendy trattoria. It has a very friendly website (http://www.gusto101.com) with copies of the menu, gallery pics and even a detailed explanation of their unique reservation policy and very specific expected wait times based on the day of the week and the time of night.
The private room is located in the basement. It’s a well decorated yet unfinished wine cellar with a large wooden communal table which seats about 20. There were about a dozen of us there. Most curious was the fact that about half way through our meal, 4 or 5 people were escorted in and seated at the end of our table for their own soiree. It was actually kind of neat but quite unorthodox. Nonetheless, when it comes to Italian feasts, we are all family, right?
Kale can be a fussy vegetable. Gusto uses a combination of lacination (cutting into small pieces) and acid to perfect the Cavolo Nero salad. A subtle bitterness is maintained amidst the sour lemon vinaigrette, with salty and sweet accents in the form of peccarino cheese and currents rounding out the dish to touch all the tongue’s taste points. It’s a perfect example of simple and balanced preparation.
The Monday night polpette special is a simple dish of meatballs, tomato sauce and grilled tuscan bread. The meat was well seasoned and cooked to the faintest of pink which maintained moistness and excellent texture. The tangy tomato sauce was fresh and vibrant. Once again, it was an other example of traditional and rustic cooking done right.
Many of the wines come in around $10 a 5 oz glass or$50 a bottle with others available at a variety of price points. Gusto offers a rather unique concept….house wine on tap served and poured from pitchers. The table opted for the Gusto Rosso (Cabernet Savignon and Malbec). It was mellow yet complex with a very drinkable character which matched reasonably well with most of the dishes on the menu. Although it may not score perfect on wine spectator, at a buck an ounce, you really can’t go wrong.
Octopus is a risky menu item. It’s a finicky ingredient with a tiny cooking window. Yet every place that serves it boasts it has the best octopus in the city. Gusto’s claim of its Polipo (char-grilled with olive tapenade, green beans, basil oil,citrus emulsion) was no exception. The wood oven baked octopus was almost the perfect texture, but was a tad dry. The condiments, however, were not really complimentary, with overpowering flavours that took away from the intended star of the plate.
The prosciutto pizza was simple, topped with high quality ingredients including Pingue (a Niagara producer) prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, arugula and parmigiano on a wood baked crispy crust. It was satisfying and comparable to surrounding pies but no more memorable.
The dessert trio offered Crema Cotta liquore di caffe, Budino al Cioccolato (with coconut, caramel and cream) and Ravioli di Pera Fritti pear, fig with a spiced red wine reduction. My favorite was the crema cotta as it was fresh and palate cleansing. The ravioli was a bit reminiscent of a McDonald’s baked pie. The budino was served in a baby food jar, a refreshing change from the mason jars which seem to house desserts everywhere else. More importantly, the pudding was quite good although a little sweeter than I like.
The only thing I wasn’t fond of was the Arancini (arborio rice, wild mushrooms, fontina, tomato sauce). Maybe I find this dish a bit boring in general but other than the tangy sauce, it was a starchy monotony with a taste similar to grandma’s cream of mushroom casserole.
Also mundane is the minimal beer selection. There’s no draught beer and only a few bottle choices. Although Italy is not known for its beer selection, Toronto is. There is nothing unauthentic about throwing a few more local brews into the mix, preferably with a few on tap. A crisp local lager or a nutty amber ale would nicely compliment many of Gusto’s menu items.
Gusto’s focus is traditional Italian food within a trendy environment. Even the “semi-private” room tucked in the basement buzzes with a downtown Toronto vibe. The servers emit an aura of pride, evident through their story telling, each with a thesis promising fresh, authentic fare. For the most part, the food is delicious. In fact, I think I would have been just as happy being served a group meal providing it included the kale salad along with Monday’s meatballs (perhaps with some homemade pasta) and all washed down with free flowing dollar an ounce house wine….a far cry from the aforementioned group dinner or the oily salad, rubber chicken, cold spaghetti, stale bread and one-toned table wine normally considered an Italian celebration in other venues.