Aglowing white orb of Burrata flanked by lusty Bresaola and heirloom tomato salad; crisply fried artichoke hearts on mint-infused yogurt; al dente buckwheat spaghettoni textured with vegetables and dressed with garlic and harissa oil; freshly made fettuccine with lamb ragu bianco and San Marzano tomato sauce. And that’s just the beginning. Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re in Italy dining on the rustic, muscular cooking we all love. Where have you been hiding Ovest? At last I have found you.
On a recent weekend there is not an empty table in this warm spacious room, not at the large round tables, or my favourite corner table, or even the smaller tables for two. Reminiscent of a wine cellar, an interesting selection of Italian wines and Prosecco adorn the space. While the beautifully planned room itself has a variety of seating options, the bar seems to be the first to be filled. The staff radiates a familiarity and warmth without overpowering our evening. Clearly they’ve been trained by a friendly commander in chief.
Giacinto (John) Tedesco has reinvented and rejuvenated Ovest with generous portions, gentle pricing and a European sensibility toward service and hospitality. He is master of his domain and his educated palate and wealth of experience sets the tone. Mentored by Luigi Orgera at the renowned La Fenice, it is no surprise that classic manners and style with substance have been transported to this haven of glorious Italian cuisine. His visits to each table are anticipated, and his humour and understanding that people have come to Ovest for a great evening prompts his congeniality.
They’ve struck the word ordinary from their vocabulary before they crossed the threshold. The kitchen team has the right attitude: enthusiasm, the joy of discovery, and the personal satisfaction of executing dishes that steam and sizzle and elicit ooh’s and aah’s when they’re set on the table. There are no idle hands in this kitchen.
“I ALWAYS LOVE NEW INGREDIENTS,” says Haley Allen, the 25-year-old brilliant Head Chef, as she rolls the dough for pasta. “I love taking good ingredients and making them shine. Keep it simple,” she says earnestly, “freshness creates the best product.” She admits to being a very health conscious person, and this is conveyed in her dishes. Sous Chef Rajan Chopra uses yearold sourdough as starter and lets his dough proof for four days. He throws that pizza dough in the air as if to the manor born. Ah, this is the way we want pizza crust to taste! We leave not one crumb behind. Pastry Chef Sophia Andrade begins each day baking bread, but it’s her cannoli, crème brulee and rich chocolate hazelnut cake that provide the sweet punctuation to our meal. This kitchen runs on youth, integrity and a desire to get it right, with passion, curiosity and respect for tradition, but more importantly for authenticity.
Order Risotto del Giorno with saffron and braised brisket, or short rib and red wine, or cuttlefish ragu and black tiger shrimp, and you will be seduced into the growing loyal clientele. In collaboration with Lugano Fine Foods, Ovest brings to the table 100 percent pure Carnaroli rice from Riserva San Massimo, that grows up to 175 cm high on approximately 100 hectares cultivated in the unique and extraordinary fertile ecosystem of the natural reserve of Parco Ticino in Lombardy.
An obvious camaraderie of spirit, mentorship and partnership that emanates from the top to each member of the kitchen staff and to front of the house staff, keeps the joy of cooking at these stoves. And the menu is a refreshing excursion into the Italian countryside.
And yet, no matter how busy, there is always room at the inn. When John’s cell phone rings and a regular asks for a table that evening, the answer is always, “for how many, my friend.” www.ovest-to.com 788 King St W, 416-214-6161
When we've made enough decisions all day and simply want something delicious, this menu has all the Italian charmers we love. Known for classic Italian food and service and a sophisticated black interior, another draw for regulars is the beautiful and friendly bar. The dynamic duo of Margie and Michael Pagliaro, daughter Monica, and a staff of professionals create the “we've-come-to-the right place” ambience. Ask about their extensive wine list of private Italian labels. Warm, crusty, justbaked bread with rosemary and a slick of olive oil is addictive. Bresaola or Caprese with creamy burrata? Order both, they are generous enough to share. Panseared scallops, wild mushrooms and baby spinach is lovingly presented. We crave the timeless comfort of papardelle with boar ragout, or spaghettini with black tiger shrimp and pink peppercorn in brandy tomato cream. Glutenfree options are also available. There is a delicate branzino, crisp half chicken flattened by a brick as it cooks, and my favourite, the herb-crusted lamb chop. This family understands hospitality, and here, we enter the home of friends. 73 King St. E; 416-864-7373; www.carismarestaurant.com
This Victorian-era cottage is a Toronto landmark. Beautiful stained-glass windows gleam. Autographed photos of Hollywood legends line the walls. Owner Jason Heung does not rest on the past, but focuses on quality and the high expectations of his clientele. Toasty hot garlic bread quickly arrives, followed by the time-honoured tradition of pickles, cottage cheese and olives. Tartare of filet mignon has a spring-fresh essence. Lobster bisque is textured with meaty lobster and crunchy croutons. Scallops come cloaked with jasmine sea salt emulsion and a kick of togarashi. Caramelized miso black cod is partnered with spinach risotto. But let's get to the main event. This steak house offers excellent quality Canada beef, and a chef with the virtuosity to prepare it. With a $55 fixed-price menu that includes steak as the main course, this is real value. From 8 oz. filet mignon to a 40 oz. tomahawk cut and everything in between, including California Wagyu beef, the decisions are difficult. Richly seasoned oxtail broth, slow-cooked and reduced for three days, is the height of savoury steak sauce. Carmen's is the ultimate steak house for the times. Bonus: the noise level is low. We can eat, talk and enjoy. 26 Alexander St; 416-924-8697; www.carmenssteakhouse.com
Cibo Wine Bar
Cibo has a recipe for success. There's a mini pastificio where a pasta maker turns out fresh pasta including spelt and gluten-free; and a pizzaiolo, who tosses dough, preparing Neapolitan pizzas and massive calzones for the fiery open pizza oven. At the Salumeria, they hand turn the charcuterie sliced to order. Slow-cooked, Chianti braised, porcini-crusted beef short ribs partner with rich Gorgonzola polenta. A butterflied veal chop covers the entire plate. Whole grilled trout is set on fava beans, capers and cherry tomatoes. We enter the floor-to-ceiling glass wine room at the King Street location for a tasting and pairing with Parmigiano Reggiano from a giant wheel; at the Yonge Street location we admire wine angels zip-lining to their desired bottles. Cibo Yorkville is the area hub and a mecca for those of us who love the Tuesday Lobster Night, Sunday Brunch and Bubbles, and more days-of-the week specials. Full day menu with huge selection of pasta, short and long, pleases multi-generation groups. Private dining rooms are unique and invite party planning. Designer Nadia di Donato has transformed each space with elements of wood, natural stone, original exposed brick and butcher-block tables, as well as glamourous indoor lighting for a cozy, sexy ambience.
522 King St. W, Toronto; 416-504-3939; and two other locations; www.cibowinebar.com
Luckee could have been been plucked from a chic Hong Kong avenue and planted right here on Wellington Street. Floor tiles to wall coverings are patterned and preened, vintage posters and shelves of tea caddies add a sophisticated flair of authenticity. I like the room where I can look through the glass window to the corps of chefs in the open kitchen, creating their intricate savoury dishes. The front room offers a street view and a more subdued décor. We choose from a carefully planned menu of the classic Nouvelle Chinoise dishes that Susur Lee does best, and read with interest, the list of cocktails created to match perfectly with the cuisine. You would have to go a long way (perhaps to Hong Kong) to see and taste dim sum like these. Exquisite little steamed packages of Rainbow Gow, Sui Mai and Har Gow, different shapes and colours bursting with shrimp, lobster, veggies and meats anchored by a cucumber well of XO sauce. No cross-cultural collisions here, these dishes are in the culinary traditions of Guangzhou, Hunan, Shanghai and Szechuan regions. Cheung Fun soft rice noodles are rolled around luscious fillings. The greaseless crackle of Crispy seafood with Golden Sand (his own secret spice blend); lacquer crisp Luckee Duck with pancakes, apple, leeks become an ideal platform to show off Hoisin, cranberry compote and a tiny pot of foie gras. Berkshire pork with hawthorne berries and yuzu comfirm that above all, Susur uses only the best quality ingredients. Black garlic tofu with cucumber and chilli excites even the non-vegan. Close your eyes and point anywhere on the menu. You won't be disappointed.
328 Wellington St W, (416) 935-7400; www.luckeerestaurant.com