The Critic: Rob Gentile’s new Bar Buca seduces with tripe, tendon and twists of pig skin
I’ve developed a taste for blood first thing in the morning. Rob Gentile, the chef at Bar Buca, mixes fresh pig’s blood into the batter for his crêpes. He then slathers them with a ganache-like concoction of dark chocolate, cream and Concerto (a spiced liquor) before rolling them up. The dish is a variation on a traditional Tuscan pancake called migliaccio, and the blood’s metallic tang turbo-boosts the sweetness of the chocolate. It’s ridiculously indulgent. Between bites I sipped a latte made with water buffalo milk, which Gentile orders from a farm in Stirling. I’ve never found a better coffee in this city.
Bar Buca opened early this year on the ground floor of a condo building on Portland. It’s a few steps from Buca proper, Gentile’s King West osteria. The man is on a roll: he’s planning to unveil another Buca this spring at the Four Seasons residences in Yorkville.
Whereas the original Buca is a glamorous, moodily lit spot for dinner, Bar Buca, open every day from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m., is relaxed and casual, modelled on the neighbourhood snack bars that function as social hubs in Italian cities—a place to grab a coffee on the way to the office, meet friends for lunch, or have a glass of wine and a light dinner after a show. Gentile’s version is a concrete and marble room as austere as a Scandinavian spa, with a coffee counter at the front, seating for 38 at blond-wood communal tables and racks of wine as the sole decoration.
Bar Buca is a savvy addition to that King West strip, which feels like a dense European city these days with thousands of 20- and 30-somethings living in tiny condos, eager to hang out somewhere unpretentious and cool. In many ways, Gentile saved the neighbourhood from becoming a theme park of bottle service nightclubs. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up in North York and Brampton, and began working in restaurants at age 13. At 18, he joined Mark McEwan’s North 44°, rising up the ranks and eventually working at One, where he became executive sous chef. He left to open Buca in 2009, backed by the restaurateurs Gus Giazitzidis and Peter Tsebelis, who own The Saint on Ossington and the power broker steak house Jacobs and Co.
At Buca, Gentile makes thin crust pizzas and handmade pastas, but most of the menu is a tribute to weird animal parts—an obstacle course for the squeamish. He’s a big fan of pig’s ears (deep-fried and tossed with wild fennel), snails raised on basil (they taste faintly of the herb) and lamb’s brain (wrapped in prosciutto and sage leaves and deep-fried). And he’s constantly looking for excuses to use pig’s blood, even as a base for ice cream. He once incorporated blood into pasta dough for Jamie Oliver, who raved about his meal on Twitter.
Offal is, of course, trendy in nose-to-tail restaurants like the Black Hoof, Bar Isabel and Farmhouse Tavern, but there’s nothing new about making use of the entire beast. Like Gentile, I grew up in the burbs in a half-Italian family, so although he and I have never met I feel we belong to a brotherhood of sorts, especially when it comes to a nostalgia for the stuff we were forced to eat in our youth. My grandmother was fond of reminding us grossed-out kids that offal is good for you—tripe, for example, is full of minerals and vitamin B12, and is said to increase the libido (though she neglected to mention that last part).
Late in the winter, I shared one of Gentile’s signature dishes at Buca, a risotto served on a long cutting board. Most restaurant risotto is like baby food—mushy and monochromatic. Gentile’s is the adult version, the rice strewn with black truffle shavings and crowned with egg yolks. But what makes it a Gentile dish is the addition of two dozen morsels of chicken tail meat—the Pope’s nose, a fatty part usually discarded—which he special-orders by the boxload from his butcher and cooks sous-vide for an intensely chickeny flavour.
You’d think he would scale back on the offal at Bar Buca and offer a more populist menu, but instead he doubles down, even during weekend brunch, when he serves those blood-infused crêpes as well as poached eggs with offal sausage and a fancified version of lampredotto, an Italian working man’s tripe sandwich. Cow stomach lining, perhaps more than blood, is an acquired taste. When properly prepared it’s got a satisfying chew, like undercooked pasta. Gentile serves his in a Florentine spicy pepper sauce with a fried quail egg and a dab of puréed parsley. My breakfast date, not an offal fan, stared into the middle distance as I raved about the texture and savoured every mouthful.
I returned a few days later for dinner. The place fills fast come evening with willowy women and their ornately bearded dates. Everyone seems to ignore the cocktails and order from a concise Italian wine list of fruity barberas and vibrant chiantis—the exact thing you want on a casual night out. My dinner companion and I split the gran fritto misto—a two-tiered snack tray piled with lightly battered, deep-fried baby artichokes, rock shrimp, tiny smelt and twists of pig skin. Each bite was perfectly crisp and flecked with fennel-flavoured salt or chili. A dip of eggy, bergamot-flavoured zabaglione was intended for the artichokes but went well with everything. Partway through, I craved something green, but the salad of shaved raw fennel with chips of puffed veal tendon wasn’t much relief from the onslaught of meat. We also had small plates of garlicky bread knots, fresh mozzarella stuffed with a pleasantly oily pesto and, the night’s one misstep, skewers of tough beef heart that had been marinated in wine but tasted of charcoal.
For a moment, it was disappointing to learn Gentile wasn’t experimenting with more blood and guts at dessert. I got over it. Instead, there are old-fashioned Italian pastries—brittle, ricotta-stuffed cannoli, lace-patterned pizzelle and sugar-dusted apple butter bombolone. Despite being surrounded by condo dwellers amping up for a night at the bars, I had a flashback to my grandmother’s kitchen table, where she’d make us ice cream sandwiches with her homemade pizzelle. A reward, not unappreciated, for finishing our offal.