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Food & Drink

Toronto’s best Italian restaurants

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Some of our favourite places to carbo-load

Annette Food Market This cozy spot in the Junction glows from its wood-burning oven, wafts garlic goodness and buzzes with freshly mortgaged couples and soccer parents. If you stick to the house-made pastas, like al dente porcini mushroom–pear ravioli in a lickably rich sage brown butter, or the pizzas, whose blackened crusts buckle under the weight of luxe toppings like sausage, sopressata, ’nduja and fior di latte (all on one gluttonous pie), you’ll likely leave happy and full. Wine is the thing to drink here, but you can’t go wrong with the house cocktails, either.

Ardo
243 King St. E., 647-347-8930, ardorestaurant.com

Some of the city’s best-known Italian restaurants have a cultivated ambiance one step below a private club on nonmembers’ night, which makes Ardo notable for its unfussy sophistication. It’s more for the not-for-tourists set than the social-media influencers. And chef Roberto Marotta wears his southern-Italian stripes proudly: “Sicilian” appears on the menu 27 times, in pastas like the Anatra, with its long strands of fettuccine, rich duck ragoût and Sicilian herbs; and pizzas like the Etna, a fiery number with house-made Sicilian sausage. One of the few dishes that doesn’t reference the island is the standout mushroom gnocchi, dime-sized dough pockets swimming in an addictive stracchino cheese sauce slicked with black truffle oil, kernels of corn and tiny cubes of carrot. Your urge will be to cram six to a fork, but it’s better to savour them and use the house-made sourdough to soak up any leftover sauce.

Bar Vendetta
928 Dundas St. W., 416-551-8854, barvendetta.com There’s no mistaking Jen Agg’s latest restaurant for the one that preceded it. Shuttered after a decade, the landmark Black Hoof’s candle-lit clubhouse vibe has been painted over with a colour palette from Orange Crush, the Cleveland Browns and the late ‘70s. The charcuterie-heavy chalkboard menus have given way to a tidy list of handmade pastas, small plates, highball cocktails and a list—full page, small type, single spaced—of mostly Old World and Mediterranean wines, plus a few Ontario wines that rarely cross the $100 threshold. In essence, what was once home to some of the city’s top weekend tables now seems calibrated for the neighbourhood drop-in crowd—it’s not even open on Friday or Saturday—looking to share a bottle and a few plates of pasta. The corzetti, tossed with walnuts and zucchini, is a good place to start; and the cacio e pepe, made from pasta stuffed with ricotta lemon zest, pecorino and black pepper, and shaped into a tight crown. It’s a delight to pick apart—though not necessarily an improvement on the peppery Roman classic. Bar Vendetta clearly takes inspiration from the iconic dishes of the Italian capital, such as the puntarelle salad, made from bitter shredded chicory, parmesan and pumpkin seed brittle, finished with vincotto and an anchovy-garlic dressing. It’s a serious contender for the city’s best helping of greens right now—and a long, long way from the full-on Lipitor-or-bust ways of the Hoof.

Campo
244 Jane St., 647-346-2267, camporestaurant.com

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 Italian-Spanish 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.

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Enoteca Sociale
1288 Dundas St. W., 416-534-1200, sociale.ca

Even if Dundas West isn’t quite Trastevere, the brick-lined, tree-canopied patio of this Roman-style restaurant is a prime spot for people-watching while poring over one of the city’s most thorough collections of Italian wine. Chef Kyle Rindinella’s menu leans into seasonal ingredients and straightforward classics, like traditional cacio e pepe. A salad of New Farm bitter greens tossed with pecorino romano in a lemon vinaigrette captures the Italian capital’s humble culinary aesthetic with the bounty of Ontario’s freshest produce. The best way to navigate the menu is to round up a group and order family style for a gut-busting procession of Rindinella’s greatest hits, served in the restaurant’s subterranean wine cellar.

F’Amelia
12 Amelia St., 416-323-0666, famelia.com

The kitchen of this Cabbagetown favourite continues to wow with its originality while maintaining the Italian spirit of simplicity. The appetizers here are excellent: smoky grilled radicchio livens up an already tasty fig salad, and battered and grilled calamari comes brushed with pesto. Chef Viren Dhakate 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. In warmer weather, the streetside patio is the ideal spot to drink a glass of wine and take in the sights of the quaint neighbourhood.

Famiglia Baldassarre
122 Geary Ave., 647-293-5395, famigliabaldassarre.com

You don’t have to jockey for a table at a downtown osteria to try some of the city’s best pasta, but you still have to jump through some hoops. It’s well worth it, though: regulars line up outside a brick warehouse on Geary Avenue for plates of noodle savant Leandro Baldassarre’s freshly made pasta, which is served only Tuesday through Friday from noon to 2 p.m. He uses the front counter of his pasta-production facility to sling plates and takeout containers of a daily-changing selection of simple and explosively flavourful pasta dishes, along with gratis slices of fresh Italian white bread and a few sides, including parma ham or a seasonal vegetable, like asparagus tossed with olive oil and lemon. His cavatelli Pugliese served two ways— with rapini, anchovy and loads of pecorino, or a sausage-rich house-made sugo—makes it easy to understand why he’s become the go-to supplier of fresh pasta for a number of Italian kitchens in town.

Figo
295 Adelaide St. W., 647-748-3446, figotoronto.com<

There’s a lot not to like about Charles Khabouth’s Italian place in the old Entertainment District: the endless, generic house beats, the tightly packed tables, the disoriented staff. But the space? It’s gorgeous: all curves, polished concrete and custom millwork. And the food? Man, is it good. Founding chef Anna Chen has moved on to open her own restaurant, but the kitchen continues to build on the tasty foundation she left behind. Flavours and textures sparkle and pop in creations like ’nduja-filled clams in white wine. And seafood stew comes packed with Ariel’s ocean friends; the tomato broth enhances but doesn’t overpower the fishy flavour. With a few adjustments, Figo has the potential to join the city’s elite Italian restaurants; as it stands, it’s merely a place to eat great Italian food.

Giulietta
972 College St., 416-964-0606, giu.ca

There comes a rude discovery for most 30-somethings—chefs included—that the hedonistic dining habits of their 20s need to go. The music is suddenly too loud, the room too dark, and the hangovers—oh, the hangovers. At his new Italian restaurant, 35-year-old chef Rob Rossi (Bestellen) is aging with his clientele, opening the kind of place where lambrusco gets top billing over craft beer. It’s lighter in every sense of the word: a tangle of cacio e pepe pulsing with Kampot black pepper; a lightly sauced white pizza topped with lardo, smoked scamorza and Sicilian pistachios on a paper-thin crust; and a stew of braised goat over polenta that’s primed to become one of the city’s best winter dishes all too soon. The Red Fife tiramisù is a convincing argument that growing up shouldn’t have to mean skipping dessert.

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Il Covo
585 College St., 416-530-7585, ilcovo.ca

Pass through the heavy Game of Thrones doors and you’ll swear you’ve entered an old Venetian tavern, but this trendy spot is the new home of chef Ryan Campbell and manager-sommelier Giuseppe Marchesini, both last of the Buca brand. The specialty here is cicchetti, the Venetian equivalent of Spanish pinchos—grazing food best consumed while sitting at a bar with a glass of wine. Campbell’s are fancier: golden-fried finger sandwiches of bay scallop and sidestripe shrimp, and tender brisket, slow-braised in a Calabrian licorice liqueur. Downstairs is a wine cellar stacked with interesting Italian finds, like a pleasantly funky unfiltered orange wine from Molise as well as sweeter ones to complement a dainty espresso-flavoured layered sponge cake.

La Palma
849 Dundas St. W., 416-368-4567, lapalma.ca

The Cal-Ital cooking in this breezy, all-white room is vibrant and aggressively seasonal, like a salad of late-summer corn and lentils with Ontario goat cheese and chickpeas; deep-fried, ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms; and flatbread-like pizzas strewn with treviso, taleggio and figs. There are heartier options, too, like a “100 layer” lasagna built with noodles, béchamel, a hefty bolognese, and deliciously bubbling and charred mozzarella.

Toronto's best Italian restaurants

Lucia
1595 Dupont St., 416-901-4533, luciatoronto.com

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The Junction Triangle’s new Italian trattoria is a bit louder, a bit brighter and a bit more brash than its sister spot in Parkdale. With jungle-bird wallpaper and negronis on tap, it’s the party-in-the-back to the Local Kitchen’s business-in-front, so to speak, but the food is still taken just as seriously. Chef Fabio Bondi’s farm-to-table dishes—some made with ingredients from his and business partner Michael Sangregario’s own plot of land up in King County—include many a hand-made pasta. Pasta like tender ricotta cavatelli in a punchy ’nduja ragu; or fazzoletti (“handkerchief”) di mortadella, flat and square pasta pockets stuffed with paper-thin sheets of the delicious Italian bologna, dressed with a pistachio-and-black-pepper pesto. Between the oodles of noodles and the addictively delicious sourdough from neighbouring Mattachioni—grilled and topped with cured sardines, or an eggplant purée and chickpea fritters on focaccia—Lucia’s menu is a laundry list of reasons to throw that low-carb diet to the curb.

Mattachioni
1617 Dupont St., 416-519-1010, mattachioni.com

Terroni alum David Mattachioni’s Junction Triangle kitchen is the kind of place where you can grab a sandwich to go, linger over a romantic dinner or just saddle up to the bar for a negroni. You can also buy sourdough, baked daily in a wood-fired oven, or premium olive oil from a condensation-covered tank of it. Speaking of the bread, if you’re smart about it, you can have it for almost every course. From a board loaded with house-cured meat, chewy sourdough and pickled veggies; to a salad of fresh Ontario tomatoes, cucumber and sourdough croutons; to sandwiches stuffed with mortadella, prosciutto or porchetta. There’s also Neapolitan pizza, topped with things like salty anchovies, hot salami and clouds of fresh mozzarella. But back to that bread. There’s even a section of the menu dedicated to fancy toast, including thick slices of the stuff slathered with Nutella. While technically not a dessert, nobody would fault you for going in this direction.

Piano Piano
88 Harbord St., 416-929-7788, pianopianotherestaurant.com

In its three-plus years, Victor Barry’s flagship restaurant has become such a mainstay that its previous existence—as the luxe Splendido—feels like a snippet from an alternate reality. This iteration is infinitely more casual, but fine dining is rarely this much fun or consistently satisfying. The Italian comfort-food hits include blistered thin-crust pizzas like the Bitters, with its dandelion greens and kale, balanced by heaps of fior di latte; transcendently earthy mushroom cavatelli, redolent of truffles, in a lick-the-plate-clean sauce suprême; and a heroic-looking hunk of veal parm under a bubbling, golden-brown blanket of parmesan. The room is boisterous and feels like a never-ending birthday party, but the occasional singalong is well worth it.

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Terroni
720 Queen St. W., 416-504-0320, terroni.com

The flagship Terroni on Queen West still runs like a well-oiled machine: the atmosphere is relaxed, the service is friendly and competent, and the kitchen consistently produces well-executed southern Italian plates—a significant accomplishment given the massive menu. An essentially flawless meal begins with the Farinata con le Barbabietole, a hearty salad of roasted beets, heirloom carrots, arugula, watercress and sunflower sprouts, served on a crisp chickpea pancake and topped with an elevating sprinkle of crushed pistachio and mint. And Focu Meu, a pizza of tomato sauce, mozzarella, pan-fried eggplant, smoky ’nduja and a layer of shaved parmigiano, is the restaurant’s standout pie.

Tutti Matti
364 Adelaide St. W., 416-597-8839, tuttimatti.com

In a city where a handful of new restaurants open every week, Tutti Matti, now a 16-year resident, feels like an elder statesperson of Toronto’s food scene. The reason for its long-fought success: quality-obsessed chef and owner Alida Solomon has been there since day one. She still takes her staff on trips to Tuscany, seeking inspiration, everything is made in-house, and the menu, which deftly incorporates seasonal produce, smartly leaves room for long-time favourites, like the costine di manzo, a warming plate of short ribs braised in beer, oranges, honey and rosemary, which is served all year round.

Wynona
819 Gerrard St. E., 416-778-5171, wynonatoronto.com

For the first time since the closure of the charming Saturday Dinette, there’s reason to dine among the variety of shops and hardware stores of the stretch of Gerrard between East Chinatown and Pape. Chef Jeff Bovis has created a space that’s both casual and romantic—especially after a glass of skin-contact grenache rosé. There’s a rustic Mediterranean bent to everything on the menu, and it’s all meant to be shared, even if it’s hard to forfeit anything from a mound of spaghetti tossed with zucchini and anchovy, topped with bottarga and a stracciatella snow cap. And the whole branzino—drizzled with brown butter and buried under an avalanche of olives and capers—wouldn’t look out of place at a small-town taverna.

Zucca
2150 Yonge St., 416-488-5774, zuccatrattoria.com

Long before every second restaurant that opened in Toronto proudly hawked house-made pasta, Zucca made a name for itself by painstakingly producing a variety of seasonally changing bowls of the stuff. Over two decades old now, the midtown spot has continued to draw in a crowd of faithful, moneyed patrons who return for the exceptional, know-you-by-name service. The menu changes often, but on a recent visit, the fish special was whole grilled orata (gilt-head sea bream), finished lightly with lemon and fresh herbs. The handful of pastas included ciriole al pomodoro piccante (essentially, double-thick spaghetti in a spicy tomato sauce) and cavatelli e salsiccia (petite pasta shells paired with ground Berkshire sausage, crispy pancetta, wild chanterelle mushrooms and fennel seeds). Desserts skew dogmatically Italian (torta caprese, affogato), as does the wine list, with bottles from throughout the boot.

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