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Food & Drink

What’s on the menu at Bar Prima, an old-school Italian restaurant on Queen West from the team behind La Palma

Including a beet caprese, swordfish piccata and savoury zeppole

By Jessica Huras| Photography by Marc Santos
What's on the menu at Bar Prima, an old-school Italian restaurant on Queen West from the team behind La Palma
Photo by Marc Santos

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Name: Bar Prima Contact: 1136 Queen Street West, barprima.ca, @barprima.to
Neighbourhood: Queen West
Owners: Craig Harding and Julian D’Ippolito (La Palma) Chefs: Craig Harding, Julian D’Ippolito, Nicholas Iaboni Accessibility: The main-floor dining area is fully accessible, but there are stairs to a lower-level dining area   The food may be Italian, but that’s where the similarities between Bar Prima and its sister restaurant, La Palma, begin and end. For their new Queen West kitchen, chefs Craig Harding and Julian D’Ippolito have taken a more traditional turn, creating a classic Italian restaurant that contrasts with the bright and breezy vibes of their popular Dundas West joint. “I’m half Italian, and that’s the cuisine and the culture that I feel connected to, so I always come back to it,” says Harding. “Every restaurant we’ve done has had a little element of it, but I think this is the most Italian thing we’ve ever done.”

Bar Prima's culinary director Craig Harding, executive chef Julian D’Ippolito and chef de cuisine Nicholas Iaboni
Left to right: culinary director Craig Harding, executive chef Julian D’Ippolito and chef de cuisine Nicholas Iaboni Photo by

For the chefs, this translates to a timeless white-tablecloth fine-dining experience, with certain dishes finished tableside. “We wanted to go back to a service and restaurant style that was a little bit more classic,” says Harding. With a soundtrack of Italian disco and a menu that’s nostalgic but also a little unexpected, Bar Prima is throwback dining with a modern edge. “There’s familiarity, there’s innovation, there are rustic qualities, there are elevated moments. I think it really brings a varied experience,” says Harding. “We don’t want it to be too serious or stuffy—we still want it to be fun.”

The pin on a chef's apron at Bar Prima in Toronto's Queen West neighbourhood
After much friendly debate about the restaurant’s name, the team settled on something simple: prima means “first” in Italian

 

The food

Italian and Italian-American favourites are given offbeat, seasonally driven makeovers while maintaining their tried-and-true flavours. “Classics are classics for a reason—everybody loves them—but we want to modernize them so they’re exciting and cool,” says chef de cuisine Nicholas Iaboni. “We want to make food that people will remember. We want people to leave here with an experience that they’re going to talk about for weeks or months, and they can’t wait to come back.”

At Bar Prima in Toronto Berkshire pork prosciutto is served with savory zeppole
Savoury Italian doughnuts are an unconventional side for delicate slices of 36-month-aged Berkshire pork prosciutto. Zeppole are traditionally sweet, but Bar Prima’s cacio-e-pepe take flavours them with asiago and pecorino cheeses and black pepper. Some crunchy giardiniera made with rotating seasonal veggies (the version pictured here is a mix of fennel, celery and cauliflower) comes on the side. $25

 

At Bar Prima, the caprese salad is reimagined with beets
Here we have a caprese salad reimagined with beets. The ruby-red root veggies get roasted and carved into neat circles while the leftover scraps are blended and cooked down with Madeira wine to create a sweet, tangy glaze. A drizzle of basil oil and a foundation of buffalo mozzarella imported from Campania add the essential caprese components. $22

 

Bar Prima's broiled scallops are topped with bechamel sauce, crispy guanciale and an anchovy-parsley breadcrumb
This riff on Oysters Rockefeller swaps out the standard shellfish for plump scallops, which are broiled until just barely cooked through. They’re crowned with béchamel sauce, crispy guanciale and anchovy-parsley breadcrumbs. $30

 

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Agnolotti dumplings at Bar Prima stuffed with tomato, onion, garlic and creamy ricotta sit in an ’nduja sauce
For this atypical al forno dish, agnolotti dumplings stuffed with tomato, onion, garlic and creamy ricotta sit in an ’nduja sauce. A quick trip under the broiler gives the pasta edges a satisfying crisp, then it’s all topped off with fried basil leaves and olive oil. “When you see something is ‘al forno,’ you expect it to come out in a bubbling cast iron pan, so this is a little bit more playful’,” says D’Ippolito. $26

 

Swordfish in a piccata sauce and topped with capers and caviar
Another twist on an Italian stalwart, this dish pairs piccata sauce with medium-rare grilled swordfish (rather than its usual dance partner, chicken). The white-wine-and-butter sauce, which is spooned over the fish tableside, gets its deep-golden hue from saffron. Capers and caviar make for an ultra-fancy finish. $44

 

The apple crostata at Bar Prima features slow-cooked apples in house-made pastry topped with triple-cream cheese, a scoop of olive oil ice cream and Maldon salt
This apple crostata does double duty as both a dessert and a cheese course. It features slow-cooked apples in a house-made tart topped with aged Delice de Bourgogne triple-cream cheese, a little scoop of olive oil ice cream and a sprinkle of Maldon salt. $17
The drinks

The cocktails are pretty classic, updated with Italian spirits or low-ABV remixes—but wine is the highlight of Bar Prima’s drink program, with the list emphasizing bottles from Italy and France complemented by a few local options. “We want some heavy-hitter Italian classics accompanied by wineries that have a younger, more modern approach,” says Harding.

There’s a selection of red, white and sparkling wines available by the glass, but Harding wants to take advantage of the restaurant’s Coravin wine-preservation system to open up virtually any bottle that sparks diners’ interest. “If you want to have just two glasses of a bottle, we want to make you feel comfortable and say, ‘Go for it,’” he says.

Made with herbal aquavit, gin and elderflower, Bar Prima's Prima Donna cocktail crosses a classic martini with an easy-drinking aperitif
Made with herbal aquavit, gin and elderflower, the Prima Donna crosses a classic martini with an easy-drinking aperitif. $18

 

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The Notta Eterna, a low-ABV cocktail at Bar Prima, is made with prosecco, amaro, strega and orange juice
The refreshing Notta Eterna is one of the menu’s low-ABV cocktails. A spiked spin on an espresso and tonic, it swaps the tonic for prosecco and adds amaro, strega and orange juice for more depth. $20

 

The Pazzo Bianca cocktail at Bar Prima is made with peach and rose liqueur, grapefruit, gin and absinthe, with an egg-white foam
Inspired by a Ramos gin fizz, the Pazzo Bianco adds peach and rose liqueur plus grapefruit for a boost of fruity flavour that balances its spirit-forward base of gin and absinthe. $22

 

A trio of cocktails at Bar Prima, a new Italian restaurant in Toronto
The space

Designed by Future Studio, Bar Prima’s dining room—decked out in blue leather, mahogany and gold—is moody, lavish and a little bit retro. An intimate lower-level dining area adds an extra 25 seats. “The design is really special here,” says Harding. “We had a small space to work with, so we wanted to invest more in it and really push it to make it elevated and sophisticated.”

The moody dining room at Bar Prima, Craig Harding's new Italian restaurant in Toronto
The eye-catching arched ceiling at Toronto's Bar Prima is covered in glittering gold leaf.
The eye-catching arched ceiling is covered in glittering gold leaf

 

Banquette seating backed by cut-glass blocks imported from Italy
The translucent blocks in Bar Prima's front windows were constructed from handmade Murano glass imported from Italy.
The translucent blocks in the restaurant’s front windows were constructed from handmade Murano glass imported from Italy

 

A row of tables at Bar Prima, a new Italian restaurant in Toronto from the La Palma team
Most of the tables at Bar Prima are covered in white tablecloths, while others leave the marble tabletop bare to juxtapose the different table shapes found throughout the dining room.
Most of the tables are covered in white tablecloths, but some are bare marble to juxtapose the different table shapes found throughout the dining room

 

A set table at Bar Prima, an Italian restaurant in Toronto
The doors to the washrooms at Bar Prima, an Italian restaurant in Toronto

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