Pass through the heavy, Game of Thrones doors, and you’ll swear you’ve entered a vintage Venetian tavern of nail head–trimmed chairs, country landscapes and solid crockery. The brass wall panels wouldn’t be out of place in a confessional booth, and dimmed sconces lend everything the glow of patina. But this trendy spot is the new home of chef Ryan Campbell and manager-sommelier Giuseppe Marchesini, both last of Buca Yorkville, the most lavish of Rob Gentile’s upmarket Italian restaurants.
Il Covo is an anomaly: an Italian restaurant that doesn’t serve pizza or family-style plates of pasta. The specialty here is cicchetti, the Venetian equivalent of Spanish pinchos—grazing food best consumed while standing at a bar with a glass of wine. Campbell’s are fancier: golden-fried finger sandwiches of bay scallop and side stripe shrimp; a flower-shaped buffalo-ricotta-and-thyme dumpling in a hen’s broth so clear and intensely chickeny it would make most nonnas jealous; and tender brisket, slow-braised in a Calabrian licorice liqueur.
Vegetarians would cringe at my favourite dish: Campbell braises carrot spears in pork fat rendered from jamón ibérico, rests them on a clove-scented carrot emulsion, and finishes them off with toasted lentils and (more) pork. The menu includes a legend, in obeisance to our dietary-restrictive times, noting which dishes are made with nuts, lactose, wheat, shellfish, egg, pork, garlic, onion or black pepper. What else is left?
Downstairs is a hushed wine cellar stacked with interesting and exclusively Italian finds, like a pleasantly funky, unfiltered orange wine from Molise, and sweeter ones to complement a dainty espresso-flavoured layered sponge cake. The wait staff is mostly Italian, too, as are many of the options in a list of honeys to pair, for a surcharge, with a selection of Italian cheeses. (This is, I believe, our city’s first restaurant with a honey upgrade.)
Everything is assured and polished—almost theatrically so—but also calculated: at the end of the meal, you’re presented with a miniature treasure chest, containing your not inconsequential bill.
585 College St., 416-530-7585, ilcovo.ca