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Gnocchi with oxtail from Campagnolo (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)
Gnocchi with oxtail from Campagnolo (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

joanne kates

With classic Italian, Campagnolo triumphs Add to ...

  • Name Campagnolo
  • Location 832 Dundas St. W.
  • Phone 416-364-4785
  • Website www.campagnolotoronto.com
  • Price $150 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
  • Cuisine Italian

On Saturday mornings, you're not supposed to be stressed. But I spent a recent one reacting to a note I'd propped on my bedside table: Buddakan Reservation 10 a.m.!!! I started dialling at 9:58. They finally picked up at 10:08 and I asked for a reservation. They put me on hold. Eight minutes later, a human came on the line and actually took my reservation. For precisely one month hence. Does it matter that Buddakan is in New York? Only if you're interested in the future of Toronto dining.

Trying to get a reservation at Campagnolo (and a dozen other Toronto hot spots) is different from that only in degree. Campagnolo is open Wednesday through Sunday, which means they don't answer the phone Mondays and Tuesdays. Or much before 5 on the days they're open. When you do finally get them on the phone, you can book for early or late. First sitting or second. Like it or lump it. Wanna eat at 7:30? Too bad. Latest possible table for first sitting is 7 p.m., and they need the table back at 9. Count yourself lucky you don't have to call one month beforehand. Yet.

Is Campagnolo worth it? Yes, yes and yes. It blows the much-lauded Woodlot out of the water.

Bloggers have been kvetching about paying for bread, but what they serve here is hardly in the realm of the ordinary: Crisp crunchy house-made baguette, epi shape, comes with a side of fresh-baked gougères (pâte à choux cheese clouds) and olives roasted with orange peel.

The menu changes at chef Craig Harding's inspiration, but certain stalwarts keep re-appearing. Mr. Harding, who learned food from his Italian grandmother, can't take the burrata (cheese made of fresh mozzarella filled with heavy cream) off the menu. This cloud of dairy erotica is drizzled with garlicky oil and sits atop toasted fresh baguette, beside roasted white and Champagne grapes, whose sugars and flavours have been intensified by heating. The other appetizer that habitués cannot let go of is Mr. Harding's superbly tender grilled squid with arugula pesto and a tartlet of rice, coloured with squid ink.

Even his take on tuna tartare has unusual charms, composed as it is of superbly fresh fat chunks of tuna atop saffron rouille dotted with capers. Not very Italian, but the rest of Mr. Harding's opus is the food of the boot. What could be more roots Italiano than perfectly char-grilled treviso (long radicchio) with endive, dressed with blood oranges and toasted slivered almonds in balsamic and vincotto (slightly sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes)? Rapini, which gets a bum rap thanks to its bitterness. Only the cleverest cooks know how to tame it - and Mr. Harding is one of those.

He will never be able to take the tomato-sauced stew of wild boar, spareribs and tripe, meatball and polenta off the menu. Despite the coarseness of his polenta, the stew has depth and complexity. All the meats are tender, and their flavours combine gloriously. Chef's house-made spaghetti all'Amatriciana, also a menu keeper, is dreamworld pasta. Any resemblance to an ordinary tomato sauce is purely nominal. Chef Harding has browned a lot of garlic in oil, and further jazzed the tomato sauce with tiny chunks of cured pork.

His whole sea bream is equally assertive - perfectly char-grilled fish with big warm cracked green olives and fennel. His lamb chops are seductive, red, tender, sitting pretty on ultra-creamy celeriac puree with sweet-roasted baby beets. He uses sheep's-milk ricotta as foundation for the lightest gnocchi I've met in months, perfect foil for rich, sweet, tomato-braised oxtail.

It should never leave the menu. Nor should the salted caramel budino, a velvety pudding with just enough salt to highlight the bittersweetness of caramelized sugar. Topping it with meringue is gilding the lily, magnificently. As is the dollop of lemon-spiked crème fraiche with the lemon tart. Employing 85-per-cent cocoa chocolate to make pot de crème is divine, addicting and expensive. But the guy's saving it on rent and reno: Campagnolo has a low ceiling, cheap wannabe-brass chandeliers and an open kitchen. It's cozy and the wait staff are suave, but there's no disguising the premises' previous life as a Coffee Time. Which demolishes the last vestiges of doubt about what sells today in Toronto: Downscale! The hottest tables in town are in thinly disguised ex-garages and coffee shops, where gourmands are booking weeks in advance to eat the food of somebody's grandmother.

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