What’s on the menu at Zuzu, Janet Zuccarini’s new retro-inspired Italian kitchen in Regent Park

What’s on the menu at Zuzu, Janet Zuccarini’s new retro-inspired Italian kitchen in Regent Park

Including a slab of baked ziti that’s a thing of beauty

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Name: Zuzu
Contact: 555 Dundas St. E., 416-815-2660, cafezuzu.com, @cafezuzuto
Neighbourhood: Regent Park
Previously: Paintbox Bistro
Owner: Gusto 54 Restaurant Group
Chefs: Elio Zannoni, Andrew Moore
Accessibility: Fully accessible
Last November, restaurant group Gusto 54 opened Café Zuzu. In a sun-drenched room meant to serve as a community hub, regulars sip Italian coffee with flaky cornetti and down breakfast sandwiches made on house-baked sourdough English muffins. In mid-March, they opened a sit-down dinner restaurant attached to the café. Both menus take cues from 1950s Italy, but without straying too far into the past; this is effectively nostalgic vintage Italian with modern Toronto flare.

Chef Andrew Moore

Zuzu moved into the space left behind by Paintbox Bistro, a social-enterprise café known for its positive outreach in Regent Park, after that spot became a casualty of the pandemic. The idea here is, in part, to pick up where Paintbox left off. Zuzu runs a monthly Regent Park Community Program, in which selected local small businesses, entrepreneurs and other organizations can use the space for free to run their own events. And, every Monday, the café donates $1 from each macchiato to Fred Victor, a nearby organization that supports unhoused Torontonians.

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The food

As always with a restaurant that plays up simplicity and the integrity of its ingredients, there’s no smoke and mirrors to mask mistakes. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of care and skill behind Zuzu’s food. The menu is a who’s who of familiar Italian classics—pillowy focaccia, mushroom risotto, fennel-laced lentils and lemony torta della nonna—bolstered by confidently simple presentation and obvious attention to responsible sourcing. If the measure of a solid Italian kitchen is the quality of its pomodoro sauce, Zuzu’s doesn’t disappoint: it’s the balanced, fresh and flavourful tomato base for the ziti and rigatoni.

Here we have a thick, fluffy wodge of Gusto 54’s signature focaccia, fermented overnight and topped with rosemary, olive oil and Maldon salt ($6). It’s pictured with a medley of olives—both dry California and juicy Italian varieties—marinated in fennel and anise seed, chilies, bay leaf, lemon zest and olive oil. $10


Brussels sprouts shaved paper-thin are the heart of this lighter take on a caesar salad. The dressing has many classic components—anchovy, grana padano, garlic, lemon—but is notably missing egg, which normally binds the other ingredients for an emulsified effect. This is more like a loose, zingy caesar vinaigrette, which works nicely with the salad’s other hidden treasures: pine nuts, candied pumpkin seeds, crispy shallots and a trio of dill, parsley and chives. $15


Whipped ricotta is pepped up with lemon juice and zest, then topped with marinated olives and capers, mint, parsley, chili, and fennel pollen. (Fennel can be a bold, dominant flavour, but its pollen is floral and almost citrusy, revealing a softer side.) Served with treviso, endive and baby gem lettuce in a retro pinwheel presentation, this is a bright note on which to start a meal. $15


There’s rigatoni in vodka sauce, and then there’s this near-revelatory version made with Vodkow, a local vodka made using a lactose-free milk byproduct that lends an unexpected velvety richness to the dish. Rounded out with chili and parmesan, this isn’t your nonna’s vodka rigatoni (though we suspect she would heartily approve). $19


A honeycomb mosaic of ziti laced with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan is baked in a layer of flaky puff pastry and served in a pool of tomato sauce. Between the crispy edges, tender noodles and a meticulously balanced pomodoro, there’s much to be enjoyed here. $23


A slab of chicken Milanese is made using halal chicken breast that’s brined overnight, pounded, breaded and deep-fried to a crisp. It’s topped with shaved fennel, celery and arugula drizzled with a house vinaigrette that gets its savoury heart from caramelized onions and roasted garlic blended into mustard, maple syrup, raw garlic and olive oil for a creamy, addictively robust dressing. $24


The rum baba is a technically difficult to dessert to pull off due to its sticky, delicate dough and finicky rising process. But pull it off Zuzu did, before soaking it in rum syrup and stuffing it with Chantilly cream and amarena cherries. It’s a boozy, decidedly adult dessert with heaps of vintage charm. $13
The drinks

A fun list of low-intervention—mostly Italian—wines is a nice foil to the classics-focused food menu. All the varietals one would expect make an appearance—Pinot Grigio, Cabernet, Lambrusco—but in the form of fresh, sometimes funky bottles. There’s also a comprehensive selection of digestivi, a tight beer menu and a delightful cocktail program with playful takes on the negroni and the espresso martini.

It seems the espresso martini is enjoying an extended Toronto moment. This version—made with a nitro machine for an ultra-smooth mouthfeel—doubles down on texture with more of that Vodkow vodka. $15


A take on the Clover Club, the Ginevra pairs Dillon’s gin with vermouth, dry Curaçao, Lambrusco and Morning Glory juice (clementine, orange and strawberry) from Quebec-based Loop, which repurposes waste from the food industry. It’s topped off with vegan egg white. $19


This riff on the paper plane is a blend of Select Aperitivo—in which 30 botanicals (like rhubarb root and juniper) lend richness and complexity—Amaro Montenegro, Vecchia Romagna (brandy), lemon and honey. $16
The space

Gusto 54 gave the design workshop Future Studio a tall order for this space—it was to feel vintage and retro yet current; warm and inviting but not too intimate or unapproachable. Mission accomplished. Behind a stained glass partition that divides the restaurant from the café, custom handmade tulip lights hang from high ceilings above creamy marble countertops, cozy velvet chairs, and tables lined with candles and fresh flowers. For special events, the stained glass partition collapses for a seamless transition between the two rooms.