Piano Piano is the best new restaurant of the summer
The new trattoria nixes the prim white-gloved service in favour of a fabulously unfussy alternative
88 Harbord St., 416-929-7788
At Splendido, they pampered you like an oligarch. I guiltily loved everything about the place: the valet parking, the extortionate wine list, the seasonal truffle menus, the precious leather stools upon which to perch a Birkin bag. Most of all, I loved the champagne trolley. That icon on wheels, bearing $60 flutes of big-night-out bubbles, signalled unapologetically that you weren’t in the usual Toronto restaurant.
But Splendido is no more. Late last year, the chef, Victor Barry, announced he was closing shop. Barry’s time at the restaurant was its high point. He started as an assistant pastry chef, became chef David Lee’s right-hand man and bought Splendido in 2009 when Lee left to focus on the more conventional fine-dining spot Nota Bene. Barry was a brave 26 years old. The timing wasn’t great (recessions and ostentatious dining don’t mix), but he doubled down on luxury, each week’s menu more elaborate than the last, and he earned a core fan base of deep-pocketed diners. You’d pay around $300 per person, before wine and tip and a 100-mile artisanal cheese course and perhaps a flight of sipping rums. There were only 14 tables. In the last year, there were nights you’d have the entire room to yourself.
Splendido survived for 25 years—a long life in fine dining, and all the more today. In the age of Instagram, where success is measured in likes, chefs and their followers have created a culture of perpetual novelty. One day they’re all glomming onto Nordic cuisine, the next all-vegetable menus, ’50s-style red sauce Italian or tiki-themed snacks. Trends used to take months, if not years, to grow boring; now they stale-date in a matter of hours. The downside of a turbo trend cycle is the sudden death of so many excellent and ambitious restaurants: in the first months they’re turning people away, then something newer arrives and they’re as quiet as later-days Splendido. (Some recent turbo trend victims: the farm-to-table spot THR & Co.; the Prohibition-themed oyster bar Geraldine; and the no-menus, pay-what-you-want Atlantic.)
Restaurateurs have a couple of go-to survival strategies. They can revamp the menu and redecorate. Lee did just that earlier this year at Nota Bene, which got trendily locavore, “vegetable-forward” dishes and, in conflict with the home-turf ethos, a desert’s worth of Nevada-sourced tumbleweeds hung, for sculptural interest, upside down from the ceiling. Half measures, though they did the trick: people were talking about Nota Bene again. On my last visit, a Saturday night, the room was thronged with middle-aged couples splitting platters of chicken-fried mushrooms and cod fritters (fritters of all kinds are also very Right Now). There were too many stalks of bitter rhubarb with my otherwise surprisingly meaty and flavourful celeriac, and the hunks of lobster were slightly underdone in my slightly overcooked tagliolini (though I liked the taste-bud flares of a garnish of dill and capers). Everyone seemed to be having a good time, even the greying couple beside us who spent dinner googling the casts of half-remembered ’80s thrillers. There’s something to be said for being where everyone is, even if it’s only for that week.
Another strategy is to rebrand, and that’s what Victor Barry has done. Around the same time that Nota Bene unveiled its new look, Splendido’s façade, previously a sombre slate blue, was painted over with a mural of roses and peonies by the Toronto artist Ryan Dineen. A new sign appeared: Piano Piano, which sounds like the name of a Billy Joel bar but is actually from the expression piano piano va lontano (Italian for “slow and steady wins the race”). Barry wasn’t tweaking Splendido but was opening its opposite: a casual pizza restaurant. 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. Where Splendido’s prim servers wore white gloves as they shaved truffle over your handmade tortellini, at Piano Piano they’re in black T-shirts and jeans, and they hand you a folded menu meant to resemble the kind of tabloid Marcello Mastroianni might read standing at an espresso bar (wearing sunglasses). It’s cute, if goofy: the lead story of the first edition was about how Piano Piano is a labour of love for Barry and his wife, Nikki Leigh Mckean, who helps run things and oversees social media—a full-time gig for any new restaurant. The place is totally unlike any other restaurant in Toronto.
The best part is the food. On the surface, the menu seems a variation on the winning Terroni formula—the simple, easy-to-cook pizzas and pastas for which this city has an infinite appetite. But there’s a lot more to it, with many diversions into luxury, like line-caught trout with its own roe, and thick, bone-in veal chops. And there’s much carried over from Barry’s Splendido, including, in a sense, his pizza dough. He’s using the same sourdough starter that formed the basis of the terrific breads that accompanied every dinner at Splendido. He took months to find the ideal hydration and fermentation, using flour from a historic mill outside London, Ontario. He had a friend build him a wood-burning oven in the back. His pizzas aren’t strict Neapolitan-style, but soft and messy from loads of heavy toppings. One called the Bitters heaves with blackened kale and dandelion, bubbling scamorza, and a squirt of lemon. I prefer it to the True North, which combines sweet Italian sausage, pancetta and mushrooms, though both disappeared from my table fast. Barry has achieved the city’s most delicious crust, blackened on the edges, subtly yeasty, and with a bottom that manages to be both sturdy and crêpe-like. Making pies should come naturally to Barry, since his first cooking job, during high school, was at his uncle’s pizzeria in Niagara Falls.
The pasta at Splendido was always extraordinary, and it’s no less so at Piano Piano, especially the ricotta- and parm-stuffed tortelli, fanned out on a bed of herbal bolognese. I also had a plate of incredibly rich button mushrooms and snails, slippery in a pool of butter and dressed with bread crumbs, as well as lamb shoulder, redolent of garlic and rosemary, luscious and tender from an afternoon in the oven and served with a curlicue of octopus tentacle, the smoke of char in each bite. The standout, which I plan to order on my next visit (and every visit after that), is that old cliché, the caesar salad, which Barry strips down to the essentials: 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.
Barry told me the Splendido fan base is back and happy with the changes. The less punishing bill means people who’d come once or twice a year to Splendido can now eat Barry’s cooking more often. I miss the wine cellar, the contents of which Barry sold through the LCBO auction in May. It didn’t make sense to keep so many pricy bottles on hand, especially when the city’s hard-core oenophiles prefer to bring their own and pay corkage. Instead, there’s now a short list of mostly light, pizza-friendly Italian wines. And there’s just a single sparkling option, a Venetian prosecco. It’ll have to do until we’re ready for the champagne cart’s return.