Review:You Gotta Eat Here:Barrie:Pie Wood Fired Pizza

John Catucci left a bad taste in my mouth after my visit to Dr. Laffa. So I must admit a was a bit reluctant to place a take out order at Pie Wood Fired Pizza during a recent trip to Barrie. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I picked up the phone and ordered three pies for the trip home. This isn’t an easy task, however, since there are around 20 choices ranging from classic pies, crazy pies and hold the tomato pies.  There is even a $100 fois gras and black truffle pizza.

Pie Wood Fired Pizza is located in one of the many large malls that hug the 400.  Easy to see from the highway, it’s slightly harder to find.  Based on the menu (and the name of the restaurant), pizza is the mainstay and it supported by some pastas, sandwiches and appetizers from calamari to salty balls. Upon arrival, I noticed that the front was plastered with You Gotta Eat Here propaganda.   For example, there was a rather large poster with a proclamation from John Catucci himself….”I love the taste of pie…it’s delicious”.

SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza
SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza

The interior is a cross between an Italian bistro and a sports bar.  Its quite open with nicely spaced tables and a large bar along the back.  The walls are lined with posters and paraphernalia  with plenty of pie, pizza and beer references.  A blackboard explains the daily drink specials (long island ice tea, ceasars etc for $6).  I paid for the pies and went on my way.

Pizza one was the Pepperoni pie…the easy solution for any child under the age of 10. There was no shortage of any of the promised toppings and passed the kid test quite easily.  It had that crust pliability that provides great entertainment value as well as taste for the young ones. Not bad for $12 either.

Pizza two was the St. Lucia pie…a Hawaiian type topped with tomato, pineapple, house smoked bacon, mozzarella and shredded coconut.  Other than the coconut, I have yet to understand the correlation between the name and the toppings.  That aside, it was a delicious pizza.  The bacon was sliced thin and  full of flavour.  Chunks of fresh pineapple and the subtle use of coconut add a delicious sweetness.  The toppings were abundant but didn’t compromise the integrity of the delicate thin crust.

pie st lucia

The third pie was the tomatoless cow pie, named for the use of braised beef shank as the main protein.  It reminded me of a steakhouse dinner on a crust as it came complete with roasted potato, spinach, mushrooms, onion, cheese Sauce and parmesan. Once again, despite the cornucopia of toppings, the crust was not compromised at all.  The pototoes were tender and the ingredients were presented in a good proportion.

Cow Pie $14.50
Cow Pie $14.50

My Take

Traditionally, really good thin crust pizzas are reserved for  enotecas  such as Queen Margarita or Terroni located along the trendy streets of urban centres.  One wouldn’t suspect some of the best pizza going lives in a commercial area in Barrie, Ontario. The concept is brilliant; make pizza the mainstay of a sports/casual  bar theme.  Instead of serving a default, thick-crusted, warmed up pizza in order to add diversity to a burger and fry centric menu, Pie makes pizza the star. Sure, some of the crazy pies may appear a bit gimmicky (eg. captain pie liner, hedge hog, green egg and ham etc.) but I don’t doubt each is made with the same attention to detail as the ones I ordered to make a stellar product.Although I can’t comment on the service in the restaurant, it will be a place I will at least think about when driving to and from Northern Ontario instead of hitting the En Route or one of the many crowded chains along Bayfield street.

In the end, I fully agree with John Catucci…

“I love the taste of pie.”

Hmmm…now how would I add one of those winky faces?

Pie 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: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