Buca 602 King St. W., Toronto 416-865-1600 $140 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
If I were to put my first dining experiences in Italy up against my early sexual experiences, it would be a pretty easy guess why I became a restaurant critic. I daresay I am not the only one with these feelings.
The iconic Italian dining experience is neither fancy nor formal. Unlike the French, Italians delight in serving the food of the nonna (grandmother) in environments designed to comfort, not impress. The only Italian nonna whose kitchen I knew was Marcella Hazan, diva of Italian cuisine in America. In the week-long cooking course I took with Marcella, she railed against the foolishness of fusion food and reserved particular scorn for the undercooked, under-flavoured silliness of nouvelle cuisine.
One day, Marcella was braising green peppers with garlic. She stirred them over medium low heat for a good 45 minutes. I foolishly asked her if that wouldn't make them mushy. She, more kindly than usual, said it was the only way they would "catch the flavour" of the garlic. And catch it they did, for a depth I had not met before in sweet peppers.
This is the cooking of the nonnas : deep, strong and sexy.
And it's the reason you could hardly get a table at Buca, which had been open barely a week, in early October. I am in love with the straight-talking big brio of the food. Chef Rob Gentile trained under the best - Mark McEwan - at North 44, Bymark and One, but has gone back to the cooking of his nonna . Buca's owners,
Peter Tsebelis and Gus Giazitzidis, own Brassaii and Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse, which explains the uber-coolness of the room.
And perhaps the signless obscurity of it too. Buca is wayyyyy down a long alley. There's no sign at the alley entrance and no sign on the actual restaurant either. You see Cheval, the twentysomething party house on King Street, with its awnings, velvet ropes and bouncers, and walk down the alley to Cheval's right until you see what might be a restaurant entrance on your right. I find this reprehensible - why would you want to make people uncomfortable even finding your restaurant?
But once inside, it's fabulous - a tall, pale honey-coloured industrial building whose clean lines have been respected. The main dining room is a clever combo platter of trendy, elegant and casual. It puts on no airs, but is it accidental that there are so many hypercool thirtysomethings here? Under the triple-height ceiling, a warm glow suffuses all those pretty people. There is bar seating at a long, high table cleverly perched in a brick wall cutout, but, otherwise, adornment at Buca is spare: The tables are plain dark wood, the walls are naked old brick, the lights are bare industrial bulbs.
Italophiles will swoon; carnivores will find that chef Gentile makes sweet love to meat. On the way from the big dining room to the small back room, he keeps a salumeria - a glass cold room - full of house-made sausages and hams hanging to cure. On the bar is a huge Niagara prosciutto. They serve ridiculously moist and tender bresaola (air cured beef), also from Niagara. The house-made fennel Berkshire sausage is moist and complex. Salsiccine are spicy cured-pork sausage sticks with deep rich flavour - just spicy enough for interest, chewy but not tough. With the sausages come tiny treats - lightly pickled wild mushrooms and other veg and puckery little olives.
Although Buca is so much more than a pizza and pasta parlour, they do great credit to things farinaceous. Agnolotti are splendid pasta stuffed with veal, grana padano and mortadella in a pool of veal ragu with deep, sweet meat savour. They do fab thin-crust pizza, the most entertaining of which is topped with rich tomato sauce, perfectly cooked fresh clams and chewy/sweet strips of house-cured sausage.
The servers are Italian charmers - and not too hard on the eyes either. Ours says things like "Will you trust me?" when he suggests leavening all the salt and grease with a salad of orange and shaved beet with radish and red onion. Will we trust him? To the moon and back. And doing so is warranted: The orange and beet salad is a knife-edge balance of sweet and tangy, just sharp enough to cut the meat fat.
Chef Gentile understands fish too. His orata (sea bream) is perfectly cooked and jazzed with lightly preserved lemon and big, cracked dark green olives. His only miscalculations are overcooked carciofi alla romana - artichokes usually stuffed with mint, garlic and parsley but with none of those flavours in evidence. And fried gnocchi are strange, kind of like gnocchi channelling potato chips - all air inside like puffed wheat. No taste, no sauce. Just deep-fried.
Buca's desserts are fabulous, even crazy great, especially given that Italian chefs do not always value dessert highly. Baba is a cloud-light rum-soaked confection topped with just-made gossamer frangelico sabayon and a sprinkle of toasted hazelnuts. Cannoli are crispy, crunchy crepes rolled around impeccable dark chocolate cream.
But crostatina - ultrafresh, lighter-than-air Ontario buffalo ricotta in a super-tender pulverized almond crust with poached pears and delicate honey sauce - stole my heart. These are flavours that shout joy from the rooftops.