Pizza Libretto- Beckham vs Pirlo and why Ray Hudson may be the Guy Fawkes of Football

I was born a mongrel of the United Kingdom.  I have a bit of English and a bit of Irish in me.  With that, I can have some pride in my heritage.   I mean, England is the home of delicious things like treacle, Cadbury chocolate (in which the North American version doesn’t hold a candle) and hearty dishes like beef Wellington.  I also enjoying waking on Saturday to a good football match.  Being both an England fan at a national level (since I doubt I will ever see Canada qualify for the World Cup in my lifetime) and Liverpool at a domestic level, I can relate to Leafs fan. Liverpool has failed to produce a title since the inception of the premier league in 1992. England has not won a World cup since 1966 (one year before Toronto’s last triumph) and  Italy, on the other hand, has won two world cups and reached the final once during my life time. These facts help fuel the perceived superiority of Italy vs England. Pundits like Ray Hudson, acclaimed English player and now soccer commentator, doesn’t help the cause.  Known for his colourful diction (you’d know him if you ever heard his Dairy Queen commercial), he co-hosts a radio show on Sirius radio.  I was listening last week and he began a segment on the coolest player in soccer. His sacrilegious choice was Italian national  Andrea Pirlo.  This lead to call-ins who mentioned alternatives like David Beckham.  Hudson dismissed this suggestion based on the contrived nature of the Beckham empire, suggesting that Pirlo was naturally cool and didn’t need the help.

People from England rarely cite their food as a contender for the best in the world.  They use terms like comfort to justify the use of butter and salt as the main seasonings.  Italians, on the other hand, have unified like a Chicago mob to stamp the concept of  simplicity all over their cuisine.  Whether it’s Joe Bastianich or a first generation Italian-American contestant on a cooking show, an Italian can rarely speak of any dish without using the words simple and fresh.

I enjoy arguing with an Italian. I remember sitting in bar in Chicago engaged in a discussion about the world’s best beer with an Italian colleague who insisted that his homeland had the best beer in the world. I’ll give Italy a lot of credit for their contribution to foodgasms around the world but I won’t give them beer. Once he realized I wasn’t going to agree, he erupted into a frenzy, pointing out that England hadn’t won a world cup in 50 years.  My answer was simply “Yes, I know but Italian beer still sucks”.  With that, he stormed away as red as a glass of Chianti.

Picking a preferred thin crust pizza place in Toronto is like choosing a political party.  Some opt for the trendy Terroni.  Others swear by the modish Queen Margherita pizza. A third group loves the popular Pizza Libretto.  Whether it’s the service, the size, the reservation policy or one of a hundred other reasons,  loyalists of each will find reasons to pledge allegiance to their chosen joint and find reasons to discredit  the others.

Call me an undecided voter.  I’ve been to Terroni a couple of times and haven’t yet experienced Queen Margherita.  I was invited to Pizza Libretto for a work function. I was coming from the East and had a treacherous drive down the Danforth in a snowstorm to get there.  Once I arrived, I was greeted by the hostess and seated quickly.  The waitstaff met Hudson’s definition of cool; black tees and a laissez-faire attitude that wasn’t quite pretentious. I ordered a drink and waited for the arrival of the set menu.  The first course was a piatto grandea mix of meat, cheese  and other things delicious including crostinis, arugula salad, olives, pickles and a delicious spread with a good amount of heat (top right) which was one of the best things on the tray.  The other stellar component was the small piece of red wine rinsed blue cheese hidden just above the pickles.  All in all, it was delicious start to the meal.

Antipasto plate
Antipasto plate

Along with the antipasto, our table was treated to their version of bread.  It was puffy and warm and seasoned with salt and rosemary to near perfection.

Bread to Start
Bread to Start

A larger arugula salad arrived shortly after which was served with pear, walnut and a nicely balanced vinaigrette. Along with it came arancini balls which were bursting with basil and pine nut pesto, bufala mozzarella, peperonata and tomato.  Normally arancini are not on the top of my list, but I must say I enjoyed this version more than most.

Arancini
Arancini

At this point I should mention that there was too much food.  As a result of the storm, we had three no shows so we only had 9 instead of 12 people.  Although we pointed it out and offered to pay for the committed 12, our request fell on deaf ears.  Dish after dish came out, including three of each of the following pizzas: the classic margherita, the duck confit (with pear and mozzerella)  and the cremini mushroom pizza finished with Gorgonzola and spices.  Each was exactly what it promised, highlighted by the signature crust cooked at 900 degrees for 90 seconds. Normally I’m not a traditionalist, but the Margherita was the best of the bunch driven by the delicious tomato sauce.

Margherita Pizza
Margherita Pizza
Cremini Pizza
Cremini Pizza
Duck Confit Pizza
Duck Confit Pizza

The dessert platter was a cornucopia of classics including panna cotta, tiramisu, budino and chocolate and espresso gelato. Once again, a ridiculous amount was brought to the table.  What you see is what you got. It was a good sampling of traditional Italian dolci.  In particular, the budino was worth a few extra bites.

Desserts (Gelato, Panna Cotta, Tiramisu, Budino)
Desserts (Gelato, Panna Cotta, Tiramisu, Budino)

My Take

In typical Italian fashion, the food was simple and delicious.  I had few complaints other than their insistence to bring out enough food to cover our no shows even though we asked them not to. Half of us left with enough pizza boxes to make it look like we were on our way to a frat party at the University of Toronto.  Now, I can’t confirm whether this was stubbornness, pretension or just the Italian way (ie. feed people regardless of whether they want it or not) but it was a bit against my value system.  Remember, I come from a rather cheap culture where we could gladly get paid for food we didn’t serve.  Compared to Terroni, I’m a fan of Pizza Libretto from the perspective of the food, service and atmosphere.  I haven’t had Queen Margherita yet, but I will make it a New Year’s resolution in 2015. At that point, I can become a decided voter and join whatever pizza party I chose to.

Although I can admit that Italians can be cool (at least in the kitchen), I wouldn’t go as far as Ray Hudson in his bold proclamation of Andrea Pirlo as the coolest cat in soccer.  Sure, UK players look ridiculous with long hair (google Gareth Bale if you want proof);  they don’t sport facial hair very well and they would need the backing of a spice girl and a marketing juggernaut to elevate themselves to the status of cool, but the on-pitch failures of Liverpool and Italian acquisitions Alberto Aquilani, Fabio Borini and most recently Mario Ballotelli  makes me think Italy still has some work to do when competing in one of the best leagues in the world (although I will admit the Italian national team has basically owned England since I’ve been born).  Ray, your seditious and treasonous comments about the English game combined with the marvelous fireworks that emit from your mouth might make you football’s modern day Guy Fawkes…and I love it.

Andrea Pirlo. The coolest cat in football?
Andrea Pirlo. The coolest cat in football?

Pizzeria Libretto on Urbanspoon

Starring in a Sitcom Called Seven Hills

When I think of Seven Hills, a few things come to mind:

1. It sounds like the name of an ABC sitcom that involves some washed-up actor or actress who chose a TV career for a change of pace instead if admitting their last five movies have made less than 25 million combined in theatre revenues.

2. It might be the title of a country song which describes the trials and tribulations of the contours challenging a John Deere tractor in the attempt to harvest a bumper crop of  wheat.

3. It could describe the geography of the walk from O’Farrell to this Hyde St. eatery in the Russian  Hill district.

In fact, it is a relatively quaint Italian joint located between the pier and the bustling, tourist-ridden O’Farrell street. It doesn’t get the fanfare and hype of the more visible eateries but  regularly sits in the top 25 of the 5000 San Francisco restaurants on tripadvisor.  We booked a table for six which seemed to take up a good portion of the restaurant as we were seated in the back corner.  The menu changes regularly but focuses on classic fare in a classic setting.  It’s evident when you read the menu that the place pledges allegiance to locally sourced food.  The vegetables, herbs and proteins come from a guy named Jim or Bob or Jim Bob and from places like Full Belly and All Star farms.

The service staff was cordial but a bit confused.  They had a couple of waiters taking care of our table who had different levels of understanding.  For example, I was offered a unique white wine by one waiter whereas the other had no idea what I was talking about when I ordered another glass.  That said, there was a definite and rightful pride in their demeanor when describing the rustic dishes.

The table agreed on an array of first plates to share which ranged from $9-15.  First, we were treated to an amuse bouche which was a delicious melon soup.  The duck liver pate was a bit unorthodox in that it was served chunky country style instead of smooth like the surrounding eateries. That said, it was pretty decent.  Other choices were the meatballs, arancini, burrata with tomato and prosciutto and carpaccio.  In summary, none were remarkable but none were bad either. If I had to pick, the meatballs won the battle.

 

Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with proscutto.
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with prosciutto ($9-15)

In the meantime, as more people crammed into the small quarters, the temperature rose to the point of slight discomfort.  With more of a crowd the service got a little choppier.  For the main I ordered the squid ink (or neri) pasta. Like the Italian cliche, it was delicious in it’s simplicity but became a little monotonous even with the addition of a generous amounts crispy breadcrumbs.  I found the portion size quite ample and of good value for the price.

 

Neri (Squid Ink Pasta)
Neri (Squid Ink) Pasta

My Take

Seven Hills is the quintessential small family run bistro within a very diverse and vibrant dining scene.  It’s simple in it’s theme, decor and food.  There are no major surprises and I imagine no major inconsistencies. There’s a true commitment to partnerships with local farmers which comes out in the food.  If you’re looking for adventure, there’s a hundred other places.  However, if you want a safe haven for traditional fare or have a table full of people  who thinks Joe Bastianich should be canonized and lament the fact that Mario Batali will never open a restaurant in San Francisco, this could be your place.  Sure, there are service hiccups but it lacks the phoniness of chains and smiling hostesses who seem way too excited over the fact you might have a coat to check. After dining at Seven Hills, I think it can be described as a sitcom about an all American small Italian ristorante  frequented by Al Pacino and Tony Danza with cameo appearances by Ray Romano and Robert DeNiro (playing local farmers Jim and Bob) and lovable yet confused waitstaff including the likes of Joey Tribbiani.

Seven Hills on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:KIng West:Gusto 101

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?

Must

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.

Cava Nero Salad
Cavolo Nero Salad

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.

Polpette (meatballs)
Polpette (meatballs)

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.

Maybe

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.

Polipo (octopus)
Polipo (octopus)

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.

Prosciutto Pizza
Prosciutto Pizza

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.

Dessert Trio
Dessert Trio

Mundane

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.

Arancini
Arancini

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.

My Take

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.

Gusto 101 on Urbanspoon