Real Simple: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Enoteca Sociale and La Bettola di Terroni

Real Simple: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Enoteca Sociale and La Bettola di Terroni

Enoteca Sociale doesn’t look like much, and the cooking isn’t fancy. But this humble Dundas West spot is a revelation

(Image: Lorne Bridgman)

We’re at the bar, waiting, when the anchovies arrive: five little slivers glinting like late sun off a rippled cove. They’re fresh, quick-cured with salt and lemon, laid out over buffalo mozzarella rounds and tomato that’s drizzled with deep green oil. The dish looks almost too simple to be restaurant food. The fish taste bright and bracing, perfectly balanced against the sweet tomato and delicate cheese. Our server made the anchovies, she tells us, blushing. She’s also a prep cook. Came in at nine this morning to do a vat of them herself.

Later, on a patio that feels like a piazza, we eat artichokes fried light and crisp like you get them in Rome, then unforgettable sweetbreads, and a vortex of perfect bucatini all’amatriciana, tossed with guanciale and slicked with just enough fiery tomato sauce to make it pink. I get my fork in twice before my tablemates finish it off.

Toronto has plenty of good Italian restaurants, and if you’re willing to pay a fortune for dinner, a couple that are great—Noce, Via Allegro on a good night. But Enoteca Sociale, which opened this summer in a humble room on Dundas West, is unlike any other Italian spot in the city. The Roman-inspired cooking is utterly simple—few of the dishes have more than four or five visible ingredients—and generally brilliant. It’s free of ego, built around fresh, seasonal, impeccable produce, rooted in solid technique. The place is ambitious but surprisingly cheap, a great Italian restaurant that costs less than most of the merely good ones. I find myself counting down the days between visits. Even amid a bona fide Italian boom, it’s hard to find cooking this accomplished at three times the price.

A new, casual Italian restaurant seems to open at least every few months these days: there is the excellent Buca on King West; Local Kitchen and Wine Bar in Parkdale; Pizzeria Libretto on Ossington; and Queen Margherita, Libretto’s arch-nemesis in the east, to cite a few of the best. Early this fall, Mark McEwan—who made his name cooking Cal-Italian at Pronto in the 1980s, during the city’s first great love affair with the peninsula’s cuisine—was nearing completion on Fabbrica, an enormous “rustic” and “authentic” room up in Don Mills. Mercatto, the not-quite-as-good-as-the-Terroni-chain chain, is renovating a new location in the Eaton Centre. But traditional Italian isn’t easy to pull off. It takes effort, and when the cooking is as unfussy and ingredient-driven as it is across much of Italy, there’s nowhere for a careless kitchen to hide.

La Bettola di Terroni opened in July on Victoria Street, next to the Terroni company’s Osteria Ciceri e Tria; as you walk in the entrance the two restaurants share, the hostess explains to confused diners that La Bettola is the place to go for “Terroni’s greatest hits.” The Terroni chain, with five locations in Toronto and one in L.A., launched in 1992, and it helped pave the way for the current boom. “Italian food” back then meant something entirely different in most diners’ minds than it does now. Centro, the city’s hottest Italian restaurant at the time, was beloved for its extra-tall caesar salads with bread sticks poking out like radio towers, and La Scala, the haughty grand Italian standard-bearer since 1962 (the management forbade patrons from having pasta as their main course), was well into its do-not-resuscitate years. With few exceptions, if you wanted affordable, you got Italian-Canadian cooking. Terroni’s first tiny shop on Queen West, lined with tins of tomatoes and jars of pickled peppers, almost instantly became known for its cheap, well-made pizzas and pastas prepared without the usual deference to North American tastes. Here, at last, was the glorious middle ground.

But some of Terroni’s subsequent locations, particularly the cavernous branch on Adelaide, can feel like they’re run by rote, as though the food were made on an assembly line and the servers would rather be washing their hair. The company’s latest spot is no exception.

La Bettola has the smendozzata pizzas and funghi assoluti that made the Terroni name famous, as well as market specials, but in its early days the cooking hadn’t entirely found its footing or its soul. The gnocchi were gummy and flavourless, cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms were freighted under too much batter, the clams in a pasta dish hadn’t been rinsed of their sand, and the wine-soaked peaches accompanying panna cotta had been left in their chewy skins. A second visit was better, but not enough, particularly considering that you can get five vastly superior plates next door at Osteria for much less money (they do a $23, $28 and $35 prix fixe, all fantastic value).

On quality and service, at least, La Bettola is being left in the dust. It’s getting killed on feeling, too—the warmth, the excitement, the heartfelt welcome that so many people remember from the days before that little shop on Queen West became the seat of an empire.

Enoteca Sociale, by contrast, has feeling to burn. The restaurant is run by Max Rimaldi, Daniel Clark and chef Rocco Agostino, the partners behind Pizzeria Libretto. They’ve tried to capture the spirit of the neighbourhood trattorias of Rome, forgoing high design and spending their dollars where they really count.

The room, done up in dark wainscotting and homey terra cotta tile, is decidedly un-sceney. Instead, the partners have invested in an $8,000 Enomatic by-the-glass wine dispenser, from which they pour excellent bottlings for a song ($10 for Ca’ del Monte’s luscious 2001 amarone, for example). And with advice from Afrim Pristine, the affinage whiz at the Cheese Boutique, they’ve built a $25,000 cheese-aging vault in Enoteca’s basement—the first in Ontario and one of just a handful in North America. By August, they were ripening 30 varieties.

The food, however, is the greatest standout. Agostino’s antipasti are uniformly fantastic: crisp, honest asparagus spears and strachiatella cheese on crostini; sublime grilled octopus that’s tender, smoky, slightly charred and served with new potato cubes, deep green favas, garlicky, chili-licked olive oil and a few sprigs of chervil for a licorice lift. This summer, he made a rich, runny egg yolk raviolo goosed with peppery lamb’s quarters and house ricotta; you could imagine eating them after a day of gathering olives. Not everything was perfect: a few stuffed pastas were undercooked, and the oxtail, served on a intensely corny polenta, could have used a couple more hours in its braise. The panna cotta, however, topped with local rhubarb and fragrant berries, was just set, creamy and fabulous. It’s worth noting, too, that the portions are sized so you can eat four or more courses, the way Italians in Italy do. And the bill always seems to come as a pleasant surprise: the six-course tasting menu runs $45, and for an additional $22, they’ll bring you a flight of interesting wines to match.

My last time there, we ordered a bottle of ripasso after dinner—beautiful, like stewed sour cherries squashed by a toffee truck—and began to argue over which cheeses we should have. The waiter offered to take us down to see the cheese cave, which we did, a little dutifully, not knowing what to expect.

Agostino was just gearing the cellar up that week, calibrating the temperature and humidity to help the cheeses reach their full potential. He was standing over them—crumbly testun al barolo, wheels of gamy, citrusy crotonese, a hunk of raw comtomme laid out on straw mats—and didn’t look up when we appeared on the other side of the glass. He looked tired, with bags under the eyes, pallid kitchen skin, killer hours piled up beneath his pores. Simple Italian, his face seemed to say, isn’t so simple after all. But he looked happy, too, the way he ought to be, a little like a new father in a nursery ward.

Enoteca Sociale

1288 Dundas St. W., 416-534-1200
Mains $11–$16

La Bettola di Terroni

106 Victoria St.,
Mains $12–$25