Food & Drink

What’s on the menu at Contrada, Little Italy’s unconventional new Italian kitchen

Including a sweet-and-savoury roasted parsnip panna cotta

By Jessica Huras| Photography by Ashley van der Laan
What's on the menu at Contrada, Little Italy's unconventional new Italian kitchen

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Name: Contrada Contact: 537 College St.,,
Neighbourhood: Little Italy
Previously: Dog and Tiger Owners: Mike Vieira, Patrick Groves and Jessie Mak Chef: Mike Vieira Accessibility: One step up at the entrance   When friends Patrick Groves, Jessie Mak and Mike Vieira teamed up to open a restaurant together, they all agreed that they wanted to pay homage to Little Italy while reflecting the diversity of Toronto’s culinary scene.

“We wanted to make sure we stood out with something a little bit different,” says Vieira. Contrada’s menu is therefore rooted in Italian cooking techniques but laced with Latin American and French influences.

Jessie Mak, Mike Viera, Patrick Groves and Kevin Nitcheu
Left to right: assistant general manager and lead designer Jessie Mak, chef de cuisine Mike Vieira, general manager and sommelier Patrick Groves, and bar manager Kevin Nitcheu.

“We see it as a local haunt,” adds Vieira. “We want people who live in the neighbourhood to come back again and again.” To that end, Contrada preserved much of the cozy decor from the pub that previously occupied the space in order to maintain its welcoming watering-hole vibe. “We wanted something that was approachable–a high level of service, but not stuck up,” says Mak.

Contrada takes its name from an Italian word meaning “district” or “ward,” a symbol of the team’s desire for the restaurant to contribute to the local community. “We felt like this concept was something this neighbourhood could really benefit from–a place where anybody could walk in and enjoy themselves,” says Vieira.

The exterior of Contrada, an Italian restaurant in Toronto
The food

Vieira describes Contrada’s menu as “Italian-inspired,” with Italian ingredients and methods serving as a common thread that ties together otherwise genre-defying dishes. “It’s certainly not authentic, and it doesn’t try to be,” says Vieira. “It’s whimsical, tongue-in-cheek Italian.”

Local ingredients are the other driving force behind the menu. Vieira works closely with the restaurant’s produce suppliers to shape dishes around fruits and vegetables that are fresh, seasonal and interesting. “You’re going to get something that you can’t really get anywhere else when you come and dine here,” says Vieira.

Thrice-cooked potatoes in fonduta at Toronto's Contrada
These potatoes are thrice cooked (boiled, then double fried) for an ultra-crispy texture. They’re swimming in Italy’s answer to fondue: fonduta, which is typically custard-like and made from fontina cheese. Vieira’s smoother take is more like a Béchamel and spiked with taleggio for a hint of funk. The dish is finished with guanciale, thyme and rosemary. $15


Contrada's croquettes are stuffed with braised Ontario lamb shoulder and paired with a tangy caponata of eggplant, roasted red peppers, passata, raisins and capers
These croquettes are stuffed with braised Ontario lamb shoulder. They’re paired with a tangy caponata of eggplant, roasted red peppers, passata, raisins and capers to contrast with the rich filling. $13


All of Contrada's pasta, including this tagliatelle, is made in-house
All of the pasta, including this tagliatelle, is made in-house. This bolognese sauce skews more traditional than much of the menu and is made with a combo of veal and pork cooked in a milk-and-tomato-based sauce. Vieira adds Calabrian chili oil for a touch of heat and a generous sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano. $22


The pork chop alla Milanese at Contrada in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood
For the pork chop alla Milanese, a Linton Pasture pork chop gets the sous-vide treatment before being breaded and deep-fried. It sits in a beurre blanc–style sauce seasoned with capers and lemon, and it’s crowned with Vertico Farms arugula dressed in a lemon-and-caper vinaigrette. $32


Contrada's sweet-and-savoury roasted parsnip panna cotta
Here we have a roasted parsnip panna cotta, a savoury and seasonal riff on the Italian dessert. It rests on a base of pear caramel, crunchy white-chocolate crumb and brown butter powder. It’s finished with crisp ribbons of fried parsnip. $12.


The drinks

Groves curated a predominantly Italian wine list with a careful eye toward vineyards that employ sustainable wine-making practices. “If it’s not a classic, there has to be something enduring about it,” says Groves. There are staple grapes like Nebbiolo and Chianti along with more offbeat Italian options, like sparkling Franciacorta. “If you want to discover something new, this is a great place,” says Groves. “But, if you just feel like something comforting, I have that too.”

Contrada's bar manager Kevin Nitcheu shakes up a cocktail

With guidance from Groves, bar manager Kevin Nitcheu developed a cocktail program that runs parallel with the menu’s loosely Italian ethos. There’s the signature Contrada Spritz, for example, a drink that mixes Cocchi Rosa and skin-contact wine with aquavit, sumac, pomegranate and a splash of prosecco.

The Contrada Spritz, Contrada's signature house cocktail
Many of the cocktails here incorporate Italian liqueurs, including the easy-drinking Contrada Spritz, which is also on tap. It features skin-contact wine, Cocchi Rosa, aquavit, sumac, pomegranate and a splash of prosecco for a fizzy finish. $17


Contrada's Nitro Garibaldi cocktail
The Nitro Garibaldi, one of two kegged cocktails available, kicks up the standard Campari-and-OJ combo with Bonal aperitif, Wray and Nephew rum, vanilla, and coriander seed. The drink is clarified and served through a nitro tap, giving it a frothy texture. “It’s got that old-school nostalgia to it, but a sophisticated use of spices as well,” says Groves. $18


The Ang Padrino cocktail at Contrada in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood
The Ang Padrino is inspired by the “aperitiki” trend south of the border, which sees aperitivo-style cocktails fused with tropical ingredients. This drink is made with Dewars blended scotch, amaretto, marsala, fermented mango, pandan, peated scotch and absinthe. $19


The spicy Rosso Malpelo cocktail at Toronto's Contrada
The spicy Rosso Malpelo is made with Doragrossa amaro, Irish whiskey, late-harvest Riesling, chili, carrot juice and lime. The name of the drink, which means “evil redhead” in Italian, is an inside joke between Groves (himself a ginger) and Nitcheu. $22
The space

With its inviting fireplace, classic wainscoting and comfy banquettes, the former Dog and Tiger space provided a solid starting point for the warmth Mak envisioned for Contrada. “We were trying to keep a lot of what was here already,” she says. “But we wanted to make it feel timeless, cozy and quaint, so we added a touch of femininity.”

“Jessie added vintage touches throughout, so it feels super homey,” says Vieira. “It feels like you’re having dinner at a relative’s house.”

The dining room at Contrada, a restaurant in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood
Contrada's once-dark dining room walls have been brightened up
Tables by the front window at Contrada, an Italian restaurant in Toronto
Most of Contrada's wooden furniture and banquettes belonged to the previous occupant, Dog and Tiger
A set table in the dining room of Contrada, a new Italian restaurant in Toronto's west end
Behind the bar at Contrada, an Italian restaurant in Toronto
Looking through Contrada's dining room windows out to College Street


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