Fifteen of Toronto’s best Italian restaurants
Some of our favourite places to carbo-load
At Rob Gentile’s new Yorkville restaurant, the focus is on top-notch fish and seafood. The “salami,” made with octopus, scallop, swordfish or tuna blood combined with pork fat, are like fine headcheese, though nowhere near as popular as deep-fried exotica like Atlantic cod tongue or puffed dumplings dyed a deep black with squid ink. The day’s catch, cooked in a carapace of salt, is cracked tableside and presented like a devotional offering. Everything is perfect, including the zeppola—an Italian doughnut—dusted with confectioner’s sugar and stuffed with a rich pistachio-mascarpone cream.
Few places encapsulate Toronto’s dining culture better than Buca, where executive chef Rob Gentile prepares some of the city’s most original and intricate plates in a bare-bones industrial room. Creamy smoked burrata tops spicy pig’s blood spaghetti with sausage and rapini. Truffle shavings adorn ricotta-filled fried zucchini flowers—a dish that’s described (accurately) by a nearby diner as “better than sex.”
The kitchen of this Cabaggetown favourite continues to wow with its originality, while maintaining the Italian spirit of simplicity. Appetizers are terrific: smoky grilled radicchio livens up an already tasty fig salad, and lightly battered and grilled calamari comes brushed with garlicky pesto. Chef Riley Skelton offers a unique take on carbonara—possibly the most sacred dish in the Italian canon—using handmade tagliatelle in place of spaghetti, and adding crisped prosciutto, sautéed red onion and spinach. Creamy eggplant is the star of a spicy lamb sausage pizza. In warmer weather, the patio doubles the size of the restaurant and is the ideal spot to drink a glass of wine and take in the neighbourhood sights.
The room is a showstopper, with enormous starburst light fixtures and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Maple Leaf Square. Translucent pink sheets of tender veal dressed with tuna, anchovy and caper sauce make for the city’s best vitello tonnato. Desserts are lusciously traditional (a pistachio tart with macerated strawberries) or brilliantly unconventional (a creamy popcorn, pine nut and sweet corn ice cream bar). Closed Sundays unless there’s an event at the ACC.
Its chefs may change, but at its core, the restaurant does not. Between the faux-wood panelling, the genuine warmth shown toward returning parties by professional staff and the bar’s remarkable selection of unique, quaffable Italian wines, this cozy spot remains Toronto’s most authentic reproduction of dining by the Tiber. Chef James Santon captures the soul of the boot in his gnocchi, a pillowy foundation for tart tomato, chilies and a languorous puddle of smoked ricotta that reads achingly simple, but is soul-food satisfying. Conversation pauses for chocolate terrine, a trinity of dense chocolate mousse, candied hazelnuts and spritely olive oil, and resumes only after every last bite has been scraped from the plate and licked off the spoon.
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Abruzzan chef Luca Del Rosso’s menu changes daily, but his primary tools are always salt, olive oil and time—each dish is cooked long, slow and soft. The antipasti course brings a series of mini-masterpieces, including creamy pan-fried potatoes paired with tart tomatoes and salty capers; slow-cooked lentils and carrots; and a fluffy scramble of eggs, eggplant and ricotta.
When Victor Barry opened a casual pizza place where Splendido was, his fan base was aghast. Where before there were heavy linens, candles and stately mirrors reflecting your quiet wealth back at you, now there’s a jarring, Tim Burton meets Nancy Reagan ’80s vibe of graphic white bistro chairs against black floors, heavy floral wallpaper and the wail of David Lee Roth alternating with Prince Paul. But the best part is the food. Soft and messy pizzas loaded with toppings like dandelion and bubbling scamorza, line-caught trout with its own roe and thick, bone-in veal chops are just some of the standout items. The star, however, is the stripped-down caesar salad: grilled sections of radicchio and romaine, crispy-fatty strips of roasted pork belly, chunks of buttery crouton, fresh white anchovy, a slick of garlicky dressing and a liberal dusting of parm. From bite to bite, it’s crunchy, smoky, salty and sweet—more of a marvel than any molecular gastronomy trick.
The Ritz-Carlton’s handsome restaurant has finally found its footing. A pair of barely cooked scampi perch on soft curds of burrata held in place by the natural bowl of an artichoke heart. Bitter, bright red radicchio leaves are tamed by mellow sautéed mushrooms in a warming autumn salad. Sliced and arrayed around the bone, the sup-remely tender, slightly funky steak Fiorentina is one of the city’s great cuts of meat. Airy and smooth Roman gnocchi, made with semolina instead of potato, make a fine accompaniment, as does a bowl of glistening braised escarole studded with raisins and hazelnuts.
Don’t let the dated decor and dinner jazz playlist at this Entertainment District trattoria dissuade you—so long as you’re hungry, there’s no better place to be. Servers are simultaneously efficient and laid-back, a combination that suggests an all-too-rare sense of genuine hospitality. The menu features humble Tuscan staples—lots of boar and plenty of beans—but the dishes arrive to the table exquisitely conceived and expertly cooked. A well-timed glug of amber vin santo catapults chicken livers and sage butter, tossed with golden house-made tagliatelle and briny capers, to a heavenly plane. While the short ribs are popular, the rabbit entrée is superlative, its meat gently cooked sous-vide before being dusted with flour, deep-fried and plated with grilled greens and lemony fingerlings. It’s a sly showstopper, memorable precisely for its brazen simplicity, masterfully executed. Which, come to think of it, also describes Tutti Matti to a T.
Chef Roberto Marotta’s Sicilian-inspired dishes offer a level of sophistication that puts this new St. Lawrence spot above many of the city’s trattorias. Acciughe—punchy white anchovies and roasted red peppers on crunchy herb butter–soaked crostini—are a perfect two-bite snack (or spuntini, as the Sicilians would have it), and sourdough starter makes an exceptionally puffy pizza crust. It’s a welcome change from the Neapolitan tyranny.
A few steps from Buca proper, chef Rob Gentile’s King West osteria, is his relaxed and casual Bar Buca. Split the gran fritto misto, a two-tiered snack tray piled with lightly battered and deep-fried baby artichokes, rock shrimp, tiny smelt and twists of pigskin. Each bite is perfectly crisp and flecked with fennel-flavoured salt or chili. For dessert, there’s old-fashioned Italian pastries: ricotta-stuffed cannoli, lace-patterned pizzelle and sugar-dusted apple butter bombolone.
With its mid-century Scandinavian furniture, whitewashed brick and intricately patterned ceramic plates, this lovely 45-seater in the Junction is easily one of the prettiest spots in the city. The polished-but-unfussy aesthetic applies to the cooking as well, with nuovo rustico dishes from the Piedmont region highlighting both stylish presentation and hearty flavours. The antipasto board departs from the typical meat-and-cheese spread to include chickpea fritters, blue cheese–stuffed dates, excellent lonza and prosciutto-wrapped bread sticks. Lemon rind balances creamy raw Arctic char, and large, fluffy gnocchi lend starchy support to a rich braised rabbit. Wine rotates every two weeks, and the trios of two-ounce pours are a great way to sample the many organic, small-producer options on offer.
Too many Italian kitchens in this city seem to believe that any spaghetti with meat sauce can be passed off as bolognese, but at this Baby Point trattoria, it’s done right. Ground beef and pork are cooked for 48 hours with tomatoes, milk and a veggie mirepoix to create a deep-flavoured sauce that goes over excellent pasta. The kitchen also scores points for its handmade gnocchi, smaller than usual but the perfect combination of dense and airy, coated in a delicious tomato and ’nduja sauce. The wine list is small but features options from some less-heralded regions of the boot, and the digestif selection includes some rare amari.
The handsome, grey-on-grey room is best scanned from the comfort of a plush booth. Chef Klaus Rourich sends out sophisticated interpretations of classic northern Italian dishes. A bright salad of orange slices, shaved fennel and celery uses ricotta and niçoise olives for seasoning, and almonds for texture. Octopus, without a hint of mush, is offset by earthy puttanesca. Textbook bolognese, barely bound with milk, is deep with flavour.
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For two decades, this upscale Midtown haunt has been the benchmark for exceptional Italian food. Chef Andrew Milne-Allan was doing local, seasonal cuisine long before it was trendy, and the restaurant’s professional servers could teach Parkdale’s cool kids a thing or two. Made in-house every morning, the ever-changing pastas are an obvious strength, like the hand-cut red wine tagliatelle in a duck-and-rabbit ragout—a beautifully rustic dish. Complex plates, like the seared muscovy duck breast with roasted figs, bitter treviso and a lemon risotto, showcase the kitchen’s deftness at balancing flavours. A respectable wine list is broken down by region of Italy, and classic desserts like panna cotta, affogato and biscotti are perfect endnotes to a romantic meal.