Where chef Ivana Raca goes for jerk chicken, vegan pizza and macarons in East York and on the Danforth
Chef Ivana Raca has a lot on her plate. Her extensive to-do list includes running Ufficio, her fish-focused Italian restaurant on Dundas West; putting together a Mediterranean cookbook; hosting fundraiser dinners for George Brown’s College Culinary Arts Program with her organization Open Kitchen Toronto; and going to Montenegro and Bosnia next August to shoot a documentary about her life as a child of war in the former Yugoslavia.
“After coming to Canada in the ’90s and building a successful life here, it’s my desire to give back. I truly feel that we have the power to make a positive impact on society by helping those who are struggling,” says Raca. “It’s why I’m hosting the Holiday Gala to Benefit Children in the Western Balkans at Ufficio on December 15. I’m pulling out all the stops for this fundraiser, which will include a silent auction for things like a private dinner for eight at your home with me as your chef. All proceeds will go to 28. Jun, an international humanitarian organization, to help two families affected by the war.”
“My boyfriend thinks I’m crazy,” says Raca. “I don’t like to sit still, which is probably why I thrive when I’m multitasking.” In fact, she showed up for this food crawl with raw eyebrows from a microblading appointment, because she didn’t want to have to reschedule. “But yeah, they fucking hurt,” she says. Raca recently moved to East York with her boyfriend, James Burger, and she’s having a good time getting to know her new neighbourhood. “It feels like home already, because it’s so well-connected. You’re surrounded by a tight-knit and supportive community.” As for the Danforth, it reminds Raca of her teenage years. “We’d hang out, eat at Astoria for dinner, and then go to Demetres for waffles. It’s what all the cool kids did.”
Old’s Cool General Store
250 Westlake Ave., 416-425-9084, @oldscoolgeneralstore
“My boyfriend first discovered this spot and told me about it,” says Raca. “From the outside, it looks like your average convenience store, but inside it’s incredible and it has everything. Every neighbourhood should have a space like this.” Staff member Tariq explains that owners Zahra Dhanani and Mariko Nguyen opened this general store to offer an inclusive community space representative of Toronto, and one that puts a spotlight on the neighbourhood and the talented people who live in it. “Zahra and Mariko are all about developing connections and building relationships,” Tariq says. “Their suppliers range from a nearby candlemaker to an ice cream company in Peterborough and lavender products from Hamilton.” Old’s Cool’s is not only a general store, but a place to meet for a cup of coffee and a treat.
Go-to item 1: Spicy beef patty.
Tasting notes: “This is afternoon sustenance for me, because my first meal usually isn’t until around 1 p.m. I love the heat on this.”
Go-to item 2: Pistachio and salted caramel macarons.
Tasting notes: “I’m a sugar freak and this is something I like to treat myself to. And I love nuts and caramel. They’re the perfect little bites.”
576 Danforth Ave., 416-466-2931, ilfornello.com
“A lot of people don’t know this, but so many well-known Toronto chefs worked here before going out on their own, including Grant van Gameren and Craig Harding,” says Raca of the 30-year-old franchise owned by Stacey Patterson. “Many people dismiss it just because it’s been around forever, but Stacey is super talented and innovative, and she takes her culinary craft very seriously. I actually lived in the apartment above this Il Fornello location for nine months before I moved to East York, so I’d eat here at least three times a week.”
Go-to item 1: Eggs Venny.
Tasting notes: For this brunch dish, an English muffin comes topped with a tofu and pinto bean breakfast sausage, baby spinach, smoked paprika, black salt, and mornay sauce. “I will have meat sometimes—it’s all about balance, really,” Raca says. “I really like this dish as an alternative to your traditional Benny. It’s lighter in texture, which is perfect for me since I eat so late in the day. Also, the black salt they use to finish the dish with is just crazy because it actually smells like eggs.”
Go-to item 2: Avocado cashew caesar.
Tasting notes: Crispy romaine comes drizzled with an avocado-cashew-lemon dressing, and topped with Il Fornello’s house-made plant-based parmesan. “It beats any real caesar salad any day,” says Raca. “I’m a huge fan of fat and this creamy dressing does it for me.”
Go-to item 3: Vegan sausage pizza.
Tasting notes: “This is often my go-to for dinner. It’s hearty but not heavy,” says Raca of the red-sauce pizza topped with Earth Island vegan mozzarella, fennel “sausage”, roasted red peppers and basil.
Go-to item 4: Burrata caprese salad.
Tasting notes: “Obviously, this is not vegan,” Raca says. “But I literally can eat this all-year round.”
Got-to item 5: Vegan Pesto Pizza.
Tasting notes: “I love pesto pizzas. Especially this one because it’s loaded with veggies and not cheap condiments.” The super-green pesto base is covered with cashew-based cheddar, roasted cauliflower florets, red onions, and baby kale.
Go-to item 6: Aperol spritz.
Tasting notes: “I like simple, classic drinks. This is the quintessential summertime Italian cocktail, but I make an exception for brunch even in the colder months,” Raca says.
Simone’s Caribbean Restaurant
596 Danforth Ave., 416-792-5252, facebook.com/simonescaribbeanrestaurant
“Considering this restaurant was located just three doors down from where I was living, it was an easy and delicious discovery,” says Raca. Owner and chef Simone Lawrence says that she’s a self-taught home cook and was actually a colour specialist before entering the restaurant biz (hence the vibrant décor of her restaurant). “I was helping someone else out with prep and cooking at their takeout spot. And then it just hit me. Something was missing: people were craving a comfortable place to sit down and socialize, so I decided to open my own spot.”
Go-to item 1: Jerk chicken with a side of coleslaw
Tasting notes: “This slaw is a 10 out of 10,” says Raca. “And coleslaw with vanilla? It’s so good and unexpected! I’m addicted.” As for the jerk chicken, Lawrence makes the rub a week in advance. It contains allspice berries, thyme, garlic, and scallions. “We leave it to sit out and then it starts to break down and ferment slightly, giving it a more complex flavour. Then we rub it onto chicken thighs and roast it.”
Go-to item 2: Johnny cakes.
Tasting notes: “They’re like chewy, fluffy dumplings with just a hint of sweetness. I’m obsessed with the texture. And they’re perfect to mop up the jerk chicken sauce with,” says Raca. Lawrence says it’s all in her technique. “The ingredients are simple—buttermilk, flour, butter, sugar, salt, baking powder—but the secret is that I don’t mess with the dough too much, that’s what can make it tough,” she says.
Go-to item 3: Black cake.
Tasting notes: In the fridge next to the cash register, you’ll always see at least six kinds of cake, each one available whole or by the slice. Cakes are Simone’s passion project—she’s a baker at heart. “Simone’s savouries are great but she also really shines with baked goods,” says Raca. “The black cake is a staple, and I always get some unless it’s sold out. I love the dates and raisins and dark rum flavour. It’s almost like a fresh Christmas pudding.” Lawrence says the key is to always invest in quality ingredients. She then brings out a massive jar that’s brimming with rum-soaked dried fruit. “I use brown rum with a bit of sweet wine. The dried fruits I use always vary—here I have sultanas, golden raisins, cranberries, prunes, mixed peel and dates. This one jar can make 36 cakes,” says Lawrence.