A man walks into Porchetta & Co. on Dundas West. Without even a cursory glance at the menu, he makes his order: “Two, please.”
There’s no need for clarification. The server knows exactly what he’s asking for. Though there are a few sides and soups, there’s one clear main attraction: the Porchetta sandwich.
“Originally my concept was going to be a bit broader,” explains owner/chef Nick auf der Mauer. “It was always going to be pork sandwiches, but I wanted to do five or six different styles: pulled pork, pork belly grilled cheeses … whatever.
“I’m sure that would have been fine, but when you start doing so many different things, you have to ask yourself: Are you doing one thing great? Are you doing one thing well? Nine times out of ten, the answer is no.”
Mr. Auf der Mauer’s desire to “do one thing well” led him to refine his formula to focus exclusively on the signature dish.
Porchetta’s concept is unique in Toronto, but its modus operandi is not. With the streets now littered with gourmet burger shops, burrito joints and poutineries, the city’s chefs are searching for new, easily defined concepts to introduce to the city, and working hard to perfect them. From sausages to mozzarella to grilled cheese, the “do one thing and do it well” mentality has taken over Toronto’s dining landscape.
“I think what happened is that cooking went so far one way, we had to find the balance again,” says Aldo Lanzillotta, whose brand-new King West beer hall, Wvrst, serves nearly 20 different kinds of sausages. “People don’t want to be served things like foams and jellies any more; they want something simple and unpretentious, but also good.”
Take the recent opening of Obika in the Brookfield Place. Though it already has outposts in major cities all over the world, the mozzarella bar’s Toronto debut is perfectly timed to the overall trend in specialization.
“Everything is dependent on the freshness and the quality of our mozzarella,” says Lorenzo Sibio, who heads up the brand-new Toronto location. “We don’t use any garlic and we don’t use any onions. It’s a contemporary concept, but it dates back to old-fashioned artisan Italian cooking.”
Dining trends often are often a reflection of customer habits, but the swing towards single singularity is also a reflection of the city’s chefs.
“I think people are starting to realize that you can take something you’re passionate about and turn it into something you can make a living out of,” says Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky’s on College Street. “No idea is too big and no idea is too small.”
He should know. Originally started in a postage-stamp-sized kitchen in Little Italy’s Monarch Tavern, the growing word-of-mouth success of Caplansky’s propelled the chef to turn the deli into a full restaurant in less than a year. It’s a pattern that looks primed to repeat itself at popular outposts like Porchetta and Kensington Market’s well-regarded “Mexican soul food” joint Agave y Aguacate, whose followings are out of proportion with their size.
Some spots, however, rely as much upon novelty as passion. When someone sees the sign for The Grilled Cheese in Kensington Market or the Jacket Potato Café in the Beaches, they’re as likely to say “that sounds interesting” as “that sounds good.”
If the proliferation of indie cafes, burger shops and poutineries is any evidence, Toronto is a city that likes its trends. It’s a tendency that savvy restaurateurs can exploit with an attention-grabbing premise.
Certain spots, like Church Street’s Irish Potato Nachos, are all too happy to play it up. The hole-in-the-wall takeout counter reveals its tongue-in-cheek sensibility in everything from its tagline (“Ireland and Mexico, together at last”) to the mariachi music playing over the loudspeaker.
Says co-owner Patrick Farrell: “If we were selling photos of this store, we’d probably sell more than what we’ve sold in dishes.”
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