Liberty Village has not exactly been a hotbed of gastronomy. Which, is strange when you consider that the local Metro is a supermarket clearly catering to foodies – you can buy a small box of raw oysters for a buck apiece, among other treats. It’s condo city, and who’s kidding, nobody’s cooking up there. Maybe shucking an oyster or two, but for dinner people go out or order in. Which has me wondering about the schlock that’s generally been dished in the neighbourhood. Some of it has gotten a reality check. Liberty Noodle recently went belly-up, and Atelier Thuet (another stinker) didn’t last too long. Liberty Belle, which was actually decent, closed in November.
But now, finally, a restaurant worthy of the tastemakers in the area! Bar Vespa is that pleasant combo platter, a spot that both looks good and tastes good. It’s in that splendid reclaimed industrial building at 167 East Liberty St., and the designers show off the double-height ceiling and old brick walls with panache. Three cheers for industrial chic: one dark-red wall, windows curtained in newsprint fabric, and Fat Albert light bulbs interspersed with crystal drop chandeliers.
The menu is a bit of a minefield. A diner will have to step carefully to avoid the bar food that litters the “small plates” portion of the menu. Perhaps this is Vespa’s nod to the unfortunate food traditions of Liberty Village: Suppli are flavour-free deep-fried risotto balls. Spicy tomato sauce helps … a bit. Chorizo fonduta is like the worst cheese fondue you ever ate – a gummy coral-coloured slurry with almost no taste. It reminds me of the Shrimp Newburg I made at age 13. (Chief ingredients: béchamel sauce and ketchup. We all have to start somewhere.) Lamb spaducci is badly overcooked lamb with the taste of the grill on it. Fried squid have no salt and are not crisp, and their accompanying polenta batons are greasy. The only “people food” on that part of the menu is the wedding soup, a pleasant stracciatella with okay meatballs in it.
Maybe they made the appetizers so nasty because they think Liberty Village people want bar food? Is it a thing that if you live in a condo south of King and west of Ossington you like empty carbs garnished with grease?
If it’s a marketing ploy, they need a new one. What they don’t need, however, is a new chef, because the main courses are all quite fine. Pizza is properly thin-crusted and crunchy, with a strong collection of traditional garnishes and just enough iconoclasm, in the form of a trio of white pizzas: potato, gorgonzola and mushroom. I personally favour white pizza because I find that the absence of tomato sauce gives more room to the savour of the crust, and removes any potential sogginess.
Pizza’s alter ego, panini, is also beautifully done at Vespa. They use lovely, crisp Fred’s Bread buns, and ingredients such as perfectly fresh buffalo mozzarella with tomato, basil and balsamic. Panini come with great sweet frites. The third member of Italy’s great farinaceous trio, pasta, is handled with respect as well. Their trademark spicy tomato sauce does good things for nicely cooked shrimp, calamari and mussels on al dente linguine, and butternut squash ravioli are properly sweet, their pasta pockets impeccable, and who doesn’t love the way fried fresh sage leaves contrast with the sweetness of the squash?
Vespa’s chicken dish is fun and easy-going: Breast of chicken has been lightly breaded and slathered in tomato sauce with melted fresh mozzarella swirled into it. What could be wrong with that? Not much.
Funny how Vespa excels in the middle but drops the ball at the front – and back – ends. For dessert there is store-bought ice cream and house-made tiramisu. The server says they had panna cotta for a while, but “it didn’t go over so well.” So try something else! The tiramisu is a sophomoric combo of espresso-soaked store-bought cake with something creamy that lacks both mascarpone and body. It feels like an afterthought, which is beneath the standards of Vespa’s kitchen. The first good restaurant in Liberty Village can do better than a badly executed cliché for dessert.