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 (which doesn’t hold a candle to the North American version) 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

 

 

 

 

 

Review:Toronto:Little Italy:Bestellen

A colleague of mine asked me a simple question the other day.  “Where can I get a good steak in Toronto?”.  There seems to be a few answers:

1.  A steak house with cuts of beef  as pricy as buying half a heifer at an auction not to mention the fact that the creamed spinach is extra.

2.  A chain offering AAA cut steak which inevitably ends up being generic like the rest of the menu.

3.  A few bistros which pair it with frites and douse it in some kind of butter so they can call it French cuisine.

This got me thinking about my recent visit to Bestellen and why it didn’t come top of mind.  The showcase of the rather large dining room is a transparent meat locker housing steaks of all shapes and sizes. One of the features is a $98, 32 oz steak with marrow and sides. Otherwise, they offer a daily cut in the $30 range. Add the fact it’s the brain child of Top Chef contestant Rob Rossi and it sounds like a slam dunk, right?

Must

You can’t go wrong with “buck a shuck” oysters, which  were fresh and addictive.  Although not served with fancy mignonette, they had the essentials; a lemon wedge, horseradish and a bottle of Tabasco.

Buck a Shuck Oysters
Buck a Shuck Oysters

The “toad in the hole” was a current spin on a old favorite.  The batter had a yorkie lightness which surrounded dense and delicious black pudding.  The eggs were a good medium to blend the contrasting textures and flavours.  The spattering of scallions added a bit of colour and and freshness.

Toad in the Hole $15
Toad in the Hole $15

Opting for the small charcuterie option for $13, I was treated to 3 house-made meats complete with a few pickles, some mustard and some toasted bread  drenched in olive oil which was absolutely fantastic.  The meats themselves were thinly sliced and cured beautifully. It was a pleasure to eat.

Charcuterie- Half Order $13
Charcuterie- Half Order $13

Maybe

Although a little skimpy on the condiments, the steak tartare was delicious. Half a quail egg and a few jalapenos were nothing more than decorations.  The chips were alright but weren’t the tastiest vehicle for scooping the tender meat.

Steak Tartare $14
Steak Tartare $14

Why do I order deviled eggs in a restaurant?  They were tasty enough  but not worth 6 buck and shuck oysters (see picture above…with the charcuterie).

The Budino dessert and olive oil cake were  reasonably priced at $7 and a good example of Rob Rossi’s Italian heritage although they did not elevate to the level of Lutheran grace.   The ice cream was splendid, an apparent reflection of a new machine just installed in the kitchen.

Budino and Olive Oil Cake ($7)
Budino and Olive Oil Cake ($7 each)

Mundane

On this particular night, the feature was flank steak for $28. I envisioned a slice of a magical beast taken from the locker adorning the centre of the restaurant.  Instead I received a few overcooked slices of tough, overdone meat served on a rather bland puree. Even the presentation was rather lame. It looked a bit like leftovers.

Flank Steak $28
Flank Steak $28

Given it wasn’t a really busy night, the service was rather slow.  The wine list is set up by offering $45, $65 and $85 bottles.  I opted for a mediocre Pigeoulet Provence at the middle price.  The waiter did not seem overly concerned that I didn’t enjoy it, assuring me it was “the type of grape”.

My Take

Bestellen is a German named pseudo-steakhouse  run by an Italian on the edge of Little Italy. It’s atypically large compared to other eateries in the area, so one can argue it lacks a bit of coziness, especially if it’s not busy.  It has a bistro feel in the front, with tall, wooden tables and a window view.  Toward the back is an open kitchen with long, communal seating for larger parties.  The above mentioned meat locker divides the two concepts.

At the time, the menu offered a spattering of cultures but since, the menu has evolved and now seems to offer at whole lot of Italy,  minus the ubiquitous pizza and pasta peppering the rest of College street.  The toad in the hole and deviled eggs has disappeared, leaving  polenta, octopus and fritto misto on the forefront.   A little over a year ago, the Globe and Mail review referred to Bestellen as a steak house.  Yes, you can get a $100 steak with all the fixings but the daily cut was disappointing. It’s a bit of a tease that you’re 15 feet away from tenderloins, porterhouses and skirt steaks but have no access to most of the choices on a nightly basis.

I can sum up Bestellen with one word…awkward. Traveling  to the suburbs of Little Italy for buck a shuck oysters but questionable service and suboptimal steak leaves me undecided.  Maybe delving into a suckling pig or indulging on a  full charcuterie plate would make me feel better. As far as recommendations for my colleagues…I suggested the following advice by Buddy Black and Leroy Van Dyke:

Forty-five dollar bidja now, fifty dollar fifty wouldja make it fifty biddle
Onna fifty dolla fifty dolla. Wouldja gimme fifty, wouldja gimme fifty dolla
Bill? I gotta fifty dolla bidja now, five, wouldja biddle onna fifty-five,
Biddle onna fifty-five, fifty-five. Who’s gonna bitta the fifty five dollar
Bill?

-The Auctioneer (1956)

Bestellen 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

Review:Toronto:Little Italy:Campagnolo

Campagnolo, a creation of Craig Harding,  sits quietly along the busy Dundas West dining corridor.  Well, quiet if you consider its subtle online presence versus local internet juggernauts  Pizzeria Libretto, Black Hoof and California Sandwiches.  Not so quiet when you consider it was voted one of 10 Toronto restaurants on Mclean’s top 50 in 2012 and has a food, decor and service Zagat rating of 27, 23 and 27 respectively. There was  nothing really fancy about either the inside or outside of this Little Italy venue upon arrival but it gave me a swagger  similar to walking into a queen street consignment store and buying a yellow Lacoste  cardigan.  I was seated right by the window and was subject to a rather annoying draft for a good part of the evening.

The menu is ever changing and based on fresh ingredients but hinges on a few signature items which you can get regularly.  That being said, I was here a few weeks ago so a few of the items may not be available if you go today.

Must

There’s  no doubt about why Campagnolo is known for its roasted beef marrow…because its fantastic.  The buttery, rich flavour of the marrow is sliced by a sweet and sour plum marmalade and spiced up with a tender oxtail stew.  Its primitive presentation made me feel like a modern day carnivorous Fred Flintstone, although I was wearing shoes.

Bone Marrow
Bone Marrow ($13)

The rabbit cavetelli was another gem.  A good portion of  rabbit was braised to perfection and served in a vibrant, light sauce and finished with a few greens, a few pine nuts and salty cheese.  The pasta had the softness of a firm pillow, sending my tongue into a slumberful bliss. On that note, I will mention that my other party member  sent the spaghetti back, finding it too firm. The kitchen quickly made another and “overcooked” it according to the kitchen but importantly made the customer’s desire paramount vs the chef’s wishes.  I appreciated the “nobody’s wrong…we just differ in opinion” mentality and guarantee this would not happen at a few of the other eateries in the area.

Rabbit Cavatelli
Rabbit Cavetelli ($21)
Spaghetti
Spaghetti ($19)

Another signature item is the burrata served with roasted grapes to add some subtle sweetness to the rich cheese.  It was satisfying and simple to the point where the obvious quality of the product is not compromised by too many bells and whistles.

Burrata with Roasted Grapes
Burrata with Roasted Grapes ($14)

Maybe

If you’re going to ask me to pay for bread at the table, it better be good.  The homemade  bagettes and gougeres (cheese pastries) were delicious  but for four bucks were not significantly better than some of the complimentary loaves available at other places.

Bagettes and Gogueres ($4)
Bagettes and Gougeres ($4)

The shaved cauliflower salad was a seasonal offering.  Despite the attractive presentation and array of ingredients, the sulphuric taste of the  cauliflower was too prevalent. Whatever dressing was used in an attempt to unify this adventurous amalgam was off key. That being said,  my table mate disagreed and thought the salad has a fresh and balanced taste.

Cauliflower Salad
Cauliflower Salad ($11)

Mundane

Some restaurants are not known for dessert and don’t have the same passion toward the concluding course.  I suspect Campagnolo fits this bill.  With no dessert menu per se, we were offered a couple of choices and settled on the budino (caramel pudding).  It was a cloying concoction, topped with an ashy tasting sponge toffee.  Two bites were enough.

Caramel Pudding
Budino ($8)

The wine menu is quite small and quite expensive.  It’s difficult to find a red under $12 a glass.  The white list is a little more reasonable in price but still limited in choice.  In the end, I opted for mulled wine on the cocktail list which was a more modest $12 and offered welcome relief from the ongoing draft running up my back.

Mulled Wine ($12)
Mulled Wine ($12)

My Take

Campagnolo relies on a moderately sized menu of signature and seasonal  items to fill its modest sized dining area.  It’s trendy, in demand and has received accolades  from critics and diners alike, although it flies a bit under the radar on online social media sites.  The service was top-notch, friendly and informative  other than a moderate delay between starters and mains.  Despite an uncompromising approach to food, there is enough flexibility for the customer to be right despite differences in opinion with the kitchen.  They don’t apologize but make it right which is more important than offering comped drinks I don’t want. Bring your wallet  though; it’s not a cheap evening out.  In the end, Campagnolo is cool, crass and comforting and  does so by adhering  to their country bumpkin philosophy in a classy fashion.

Campagnolo  on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Kensington Market/Chinatown:Strada 241

Strada 241 is the newest creation of Toronto restauranteurs the Rubino brothers.  Espresso bar by day and Italian restaurant at night, this restaurant is geographically confused, appearing in the middle of Chinatown instead of as another clone along Queen West or College Street.  The front is subtle and easy to miss amongst the loud signs of the surrounding grocery stores and asian eateries. Once inside, you are warped into a rustic decor characterized by brick walls, high ceilings, low hanging light shades and worn hardwood floors. The spacious coffee bar is separated from the back dining area by an open prep area  showcasing a modern pizza oven. After I was seated, I met Tanya who sat down at the table, , explained the menu in-depth and made wine recommendations with a flare and passion missing from other restaurants who assume I should just know. I started with a Pecorino wine at her suggestion and later progressed into a red from the modest and heavily Italian list.Must

If I could eat my dessert first, The Budino (vanilla-poached apricots, saffron custard and olive oil) would be top of the list. Everything about this dish is delicate, from the vanilla poached apricots to the subtle saffron custard, offering a variety of textures and tastes bordering on savory all  placed with perfect balance inside a mason jar. I’m developing quite a taste for the incorporation of olive oil  into dessert and in this case neither the oil nor the saffron was overpowering but subtle and accenting.

Budino

Maybe

Pizza is a competitive word in Toronto and Strada has a bit of work to do to move up the ranks. At this point they may be able to claim the “best pizza” on Spadina (given it’s a stand alone Italian joint in the middle of Chinatown), but some refinement is need to compete with some of the Queen Street or little Italy juggernauts. The Alessandro was topped with a fresh sauce and tasty meatball but it all seemed to pool onto of an average crust, creating an overall texture that was a little disappointing.

Alessandro Pizza

Mundane

The rapini served with a lemon vincotto dressing sounded appealing but fell flat. I envisioned a warm, al dente dish with a nice citrus punch but instead received a chilled, under seasoned clump of overcooked rapini  hidden beneath some crisp bitter greens and some rather tasty pickled red onions. It became boring really quick…in other words, when the onions were gone.

Rapini

I appreciate an effort to accommodate to a meatless clientele, but the squash fritti seemed like a lame attempt to replace traditional calamari. Served impaled on what looked like a bed of random nails in which the lack of practicality trumped the artistic value. The squash was tender and served piping hot, but the accompanying salsa verde added nothing more than colour. I was craving some heat or acid to tear though the fat, sweet and starch flavours which characterized the deep-fried gourd.

Squash Fritti

My Take

Strada 241 is an italian inspired cocoon nestled among a neighborhood more likely to actually offer 241 pizza as opposed to rustic Italian fare. The question is whether it will materialize as a stand alone in an area not far from dozens of similar establishments. The decor and service are above par but the food needs to catch up. I would go back anytime for a morning coffee if the advertised house baked goods even remotely mimic the budino. Other than that, I’ll wait to see if it emerges as a butterfly or remains a chrysalis hidden among the dim sum shops and noodle houses straddling Spadina Avenue.

Strada 241 on Urbanspoon