Sort-of Secret: Agio, a tiny Italian kitchen with a Korean chef-owner who used to cook for the pope
Part of our series spotlighting the city’s edible hidden gems
The sort-of secret: Agio Italian Ristorante, a pocket-sized restaurant on St. Clair West serving chef Marino Song’s unique take on classic northern Italian, Sardinian and Lazian cooking.
You may have heard of it if: You got lost on your way from Tre Mari Bakery to Frank’s Pizza House.
But you probably haven’t tried it because: It’s easy to miss if you’re just passing by
St. Clair and Lansdowne may not be as Italian as it once was—and the 241 Pizza joint on the corner and shuttered gelateria a few doors down, its windows papered over, may not provide the most inspiring setting—but Agio, an easy-to-miss trattoria run by a South Korean–born chef who used to cook for pope John Paul II, is keeping the spirit of Corso Italia alive.
“If you want to work in the Vatican kitchens, you have to convert and get baptized,” says Agio’s chef, owner and server Marino Song, who borrowed his Catholic first name from the ancient resort town where the pope lived during the summer. In case you’re wondering what the Roman pontiff liked to eat: “Vegetarian, and not much,” says Song.
Chef Song is full of stories, and he’ll often engage guests in conversation while he cooks their meals. Ours begins with a small complimentary amuse bouche of honey-sweet figs and tomatoes dressed with pesto and balsamic vinegar. It’s followed by a herbaceous grilled eggplant antipasto stuffed with fresh ricotta, spinach and basil from Song’s own herb garden behind the restaurant.
The focus at Agio is simple and perfectly executed pasta. Both the butternut squash and ricotta-spinach ravioli would have the bishop of Rome drooling on his cassock, and the chestnut ravioli are a must-order when they’re on the menu. The lobster and seafood pastas are also fan favourites. The spaghetti ai frutti di mare, loaded with clams and calamari, is built on a delicate, slowly simmered red sauce, the aroma of which perfumes the small space.
The star of the show, however, are the gnocchi: smaller, more potatoey, fresher and fluffier than your typical spud buds. Ours are blanketed in a velvety bacon and gorgonzola alfredo sauce alla Santiago, but they were just as good when I tried them with porcini mushrooms during my previous visit.
Perfected over decades working in fine-dining kitchens and defined by the seven years he spent training and cooking in northern Italy, Sardinia, Milan and Lazio, Song’s food adheres piously to Italian culinary tradition. It’s different from the Instagram-friendly fare found at some of the city’s other Italian restaurants. Here, there’s no ham imported from Parma or flour FedEx’d from Apulia. What you get instead are grandma-style dishes that deploy humble ingredients simply but effectively. “Italians import all of their flour from Manitoba anyway,” Song says.
You get the sense that Song, who speaks fluent Italian, is used to feeling like the most Italian person in the room—even when it’s full of actual Italians. “I asked him, ‘What’s the Italian word for Italian parsley?’ And he didn’t know!” Song exclaims at one point, recalling a recent conversation with the head chef at a local Italian eatery. “I have to correct their grammar and pronunciation!”
Song is part of a dying breed of restaurateur. A lifetime of cooking food for picky Italians as a South Korean–born immigrant has supplied him with endless stories and anecdotes, and the comparison one Google reviewer draws between him and “a friendly New York bodega owner” feels appropriate.
“I moved to Canada to study hotel management at McGill. The program was cheap,” he says when asked why he left an exciting culinary career in Italy. He ended up starting a family in Toronto and opening Agio in 2009, where he’s created a community of loyal customers who rave about the food and the spirit it’s prepared in. For those craving unpretentious Italian classics made with care and heart, it’s well worth the pilgrimage.
Song is a one-man show on nights when his wife isn’t around to help, so service can sometimes be slow, but his warmth and genuine concern for the well-being of his guests more than makes up for any lost time. To get a feel for how much Song appreciates his clientele, look to the wall lined with caricatures of the restaurant’s regulars, each one lovingly drawn by Song’s wife. The word agio is Italian for “ease”—specifically, that sense of comfort you feel when you’re in someone’s home. The place more than lives up to its name.