A lot of things have changed along the uprooted sidewalks of St. Clair West. For years the neighbourhood wasted away while pedestrians and cars avoided the disaster of a street. Stores closed, people moved away, and finally, a new day dawned on the desolate strip. The streetcar right-of-way private lane became operational and the roads were re-paved. New tenants, owners and shops wandered in, and Torontonians peeped their heads out of the St. Clair and St. Clair West subway stations. After years of lawsuits, injunctions and delayed construction, a bit of hope came back to the neighbourhood.
One restaurant that didn’t quite make it through the lost years is Da Gianni e Maria. Before the upheaval, this gem of a restaurant was one of the most authentic Italian dining experiences in the St. Clair Corso Italia and all of Toronto. The restaurant website used to feature a picture of the chef, Gianni, and his father making gnocchi in the kitchen, showing the passing on of traditions that the restaurant embodied. Like the website says, first generation recipes, second generation “passion and creativity”. Well I thought that meant Gianni’s father’s recipes and Gianni’s passion and creativity. As it turns out, the restaurant didn’t make it through the St. Clair upheaval as unscathed as I thought. Turns out Gianni is no longer at the restaurant and the ownership has changed hands, despite the name remaining the same.
Before the changeover, the food was beautiful. The menu was sectioned into antipasti, an enormous list of pasta primi, meat and fish secondi, simple contorni side dishes, and desserts that went far beyond the ubiquitous tiramisu (though the restaurant’s home-made version was not to be missed). You would never feel bad about ordering something from all the menu sections, because that’s what Italians would do, and you were certainly among Italians here. The portions were appropriately sized, seemingly a touch small, until you realize how many courses are coming. Bread, dips, soup, salads, pasta, fish, meat, vegetables, dessert, and liqueurs or espresso. The restaurant focused on traditional gourmet – ranging from simple and traditional mozzarella di bufalo to exotic wild boar, duck, deer and pheasant. While it was difficult to choose an appetizer (antipasto) and a main course (secondi), it was almost impossible to choose from all the pasta selections (primi).
2 years had passed since I last experienced Italy like this in Toronto. Stepping back into the restaurant I wondered if it could possibly live up to my expectations, if it was really as good as I had remembered, and if financial pressure from the decline of the neighbourhood would influence the menu or the food itself. On first glance, very little had changed, but not even this place could make it through 2 lean years in the proverbial rabbit hole of construction without coming out a little differently on the other side.
Most importantly, Gianni is no longer in the kitchen. There is a new owner and a new executive chef. The menu has remained mostly the same, though there are fewer selections (most noticeably in the baked pasta) to cut prep work, and they have eliminated some of the more expensive creations (mostly the wild game and seafood). The menu may be leaner, but what is left is a concentration of what the restaurant does best.
The meal started with fresh, warm bread and three complimentary toppings – puréed vegetable dip (mostly red pepper), diced chili peppers, and whole, fresh olives with anise. the whole olives were a nice touch (instead of a tapenade), but the chili peppers had no flavour and only a touch of heat that came on a few seconds after swallowing. The puréed vegetables were slightly sweet, but didn’t feel like they served a purpose besides distracting from the beautiful bread. In fact, the three toppings were a nice gesture, a simple offering, but the good olive oil and balsamic with the bread proved a much better choice.
Then came the Antipasto Italiano ($16.75) – a selection of cured meats (prosciutto, bresaola, and two types of salame, the names of which were unknown to the server), more olives, Italian boccocini, and simple marinated mushrooms that cut through the salt of the meats and olives.
A more rustic and filling antipasto choice was the Riso e Lenticchie ($10.95). Warm and comforting, the soup was as simple as its name described (rice and lentils), but bespoke the home-style cooking of the restaurant. Normally a drizzling of olive oil is a visual more so than a gustatory garnish. Not in this case. A single droplet of gold pleasantly took over entire mouthfuls of soup. Gourmet this was not, but wonderful it was. Not too salty, a balanced broth, and perfectly-cooked lentils.
A respite, and then pasta. Fettucine Verdi al pesto con pollo ($19.95 – green fettucini with pesto and chicken) Fettucine Gianni e Maria ($22.95 – diced salmon and shrimp in a rosé sauce, topped with tiger shrimp) or one of four (there used to be six) choices of gnocchi ($18.95 – creamy porcini mushroom, gorgonzola, meat sauce or tomato). The pesto was kept out of the food processor (the oine nuts were whole), thick with basil, and was’nt overwhelmingly oily. The chicken was flavourful and hand-cut into well-sized mouthfuls instead of machine-efficient slices. The shrimp in rosé sauce were abundant and succulent, but the gnocchi break my heart because that was Gianni’s signature dish.
Another breath. Then the meat and fish. Somehow risotti have made their way from the primi menu to the secondi menu, but the Risotto alla Pescatora is so full of shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari that there is certainly enough meat to call it a main. Traditionally rice or pasta would not be served on the same plate as a secondi – it would be just meat or fish, except in the case of osso buco which is served with polenta, or perhaps a simple risotto. The seafood risotto here is served with a tomato or cream sauce, and even the less traditional tomato version is executed well. It uses three types of tomatoes, slow-cooked and combined with fresh parsley for a nice finish.
The lighter grilled seafood options highlight the new chef’s delicate touch. Flambéd in brandy, the salmon ($20.95) was tender on the inside and nicely charred on the outside. The success of the dish depended on the high quality of the salmon since the flavouring was so mild, so for a stronger, sweeter option go for the grilled shrimp and calamari with both brandy and balsamic. If you appreciate the fish on its own, you have a difficult decision to make.
Sadly, cut from the menu was the whole fish, a true Italian specialty. There is nothing like watching a good server de-bone a fish at your table in mere minutes. There are moments when I hate streetcars.
Wine. The evening’s chef did not drink, and the server did not know the wine list. So she offered to check with the executive chef to get a recommendation of an appropriate bottle to go with all our meals. An impossible task, I know, since the food selections ranged from tomato sauces with seafood, to creamy sauces with veal, not to mention the simple salmon. We also stubbornly wanted a red. I realize I show my youth when I see a wine list featuring Barolos and Brunellos…but I just can’t seem to go with a white when these heroes of wine are tempting me. After inconveniencing the executive chef, a Barbera d’Asti 2006 Piemont Marenco was recommended. It was very dry, and a very intelligent choice on the part of the chef to not overwhelm any of the ordered plates, though I admit that I should have gone with white. For $43, it was a bargain on the exquisite all-Italian wine menu. Grouped by region, Piedmont, Venezia and Tuscany are certainly highlighted, and some unique bottles are offered. Another rare and exceptional option is a Barolo by the glass ($10).
Not to be disrespected are the side dishes. The arugula in the pomodori e rughetta is a savoury and refreshing break to the sweetness of the risotto and salmon. The cherry and roma tomatoes were lack-lustre, but it is not tomato season, so they should be forgiven…or not served.
We ordered the roasted portobello mushrooms, but when they did not come at the same time as the arugula, we requested they stay away, as there was certainly no more room in our bodies.
There was, of course, room for dessert. A simple poached pear in red wine. Fine, I thought. This will be mediocre. Wine, sugar, maybe a little lemon juice, and pear.
I beg forgiveness.
The pear had been cooked for an hour at a very low temperature in marsala wine. Then it had been left to soak overnight into the heady alcohol, intensifying the flavour. Served cold, this was an exquisite end to the meal. Basta. Enough.
As we were the only party in the restaurant on a Tuesday evening, there was no way to even consider that food had been sitting around waiting to be served. It was made fresh to order, and deserves a loyal clientele, even without Gianni heading up the kitchen. Three hours slipped away without our having noticed. Just like Italy, La Dolce Vita. Still a beautiful atmosphere and good food. Even with a few menu changes, a new non-Italian owner, and a lot of work ahead to re-make a name for itself in the self-renewing St. Clair West neighbourhood, this Trattoria deserves to be successful. Dear Gianni, wherever you are, how I wish I could again taste your gnocchi pillows of heaven.
Expect to Pay: $20-$35 at lunch, $40-$70 per person, with tax, tip and a glass of wine.
Hours: Tues-Sun 9:30am-12pm, 12:30pm-3:30pm, 5pm-10pm