Sort-of Secret: Cucina Mauro, a cozy Italian lunch counter tucked away in a North York industrial plaza

Sort-of Secret: Cucina Mauro, a cozy Italian lunch counter tucked away in a North York industrial plaza

Part of our series that shines a spotlight on the city’s hidden edible gems

More Sort-of Secrets

The sort-of secret: Cucina Mauro, a cozy Italian lunch counter and caterer at Keele and Lawrence
You may have heard of it if: You happen to work in the area
But you probably haven’t tried it because: It’s hidden away in an industrial plaza

The first thing anyone’s likely to hear when they walk into Cucina Mauro is animated banter between employees and longtime regulars. And even if it’s your first time at this eight-seat Italian lunch counter, you’ll be made to feel like a VIP. It’s instantly warm and welcoming—a telltale sign that people actually like working here. Between the atmosphere and the excellent Italian food, this is a bona fide hidden gem.

Cucina Mauro started life as a catering company in 2016 when owner Mauro Ritacca left an unsatisfying white-collar job. Catering is still the business’s lifeblood, but in 2021, he opened a lunch counter—it was an instant hit with the locals, despite the timing’s peak-pandemic difficulties. “I know it’s a cliche, but our regular customers really are like friends,” says Ritacca. And it takes all of five minutes in this restaurant to believe it.

His formulas for bestselling specialties—lasagna calabrese, eggplant parm—come from an old binder stuffed with recipes, handwritten by his mother, Francesca. “Like any Italian mom, she didn’t initially write any of this down. Getting her to put it all on paper was a birthday present to me from my wife,” he says. The catering menu, in particular, makes good use of these heirloom recipes.

For lunch, there’s a standing menu of pizza, panini and pasta, alongside a rotating hot table selection. But this isn’t your standard veal-parmigiana-and-garlic-bread situation (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Ritacca’s cooks—whom he gives free creative reign in the kitchen to keep the selection interesting—hail from different regions of Italy and bring their respective traditions to the kitchen. “We all fight about what ‘real’ Italian food is,” says Ritacca. Good-naturedly, of course—at least most of the time.

Recently, the counter served up meltingly tender octopus, grilled after an eight-hour sous-vide and a bath in aromatic court-bouillon. Roast leg of lamb is topped with a piquant, emerald green parsley salsa verde. Lentils, meanwhile, are stewed with shallots, carrots and punchy chilies, the heat from which sneaks up on you after the legume’s initial earthy note. These flavours move and shift as you experience them, which is what it really means when food is said to have “layers of flavour.” No two bites are quite the same: a reliable hallmark of skillful, thoughtful cooking.

There’s usually a baked pasta of some kind, like pesto-laced orecchiette with shrimp and fennel fronds. The Roman-style pizza changes daily too; a recent puttanesca-inspired slice was topped with whole olives and briny anchovies. Porchetta is another popular standby. Ritacca, who’s always been a curious home cook, developed the recipe long before he ever thought to open a food business. The rich pork comes on crusty bread with the option to add rapini, provolone, onions or pepper jelly.

For something dolce, you can’t beat their cannoli, piped to order for maximum pastry shell crunch. One of those and an espresso makes for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. There’s a small market area stocked with Italian pantry staples—tinned tomatoes, vinegars, pastas, even serve-yourself imported olive oil—while a small fridge near the front holds house-made soups, sauces and pizza dough. And behind the scenes, where most of the pasta- and bread-making action happens, is where Ritacca holds cooking classes, should you want to make your own. (Details are on their website.)

Asked if he wants to expand the lunch program’s hours, Ritacca replies that he’s more than content with the current setup. “I have a young family. I like to go home at six o’clock and have a life,” he says. “I think offering work-life balance is part of what’s let me attract such amazing staff.” He’s probably right, and you can feel it in every jovial interaction behind the counter. There’s something uniquely fortifying about eating in a place where the people are as wholesome as the food they’re making.

Cucina Mauro, #3-76 Densley Ave., 416-577-5325,, @cucina_mauro