What is the purpose of a pizza parlour?
The Toronto pizza wars would suggest that pizza parlours are important restaurants, and they provide venues for nice nights out. If not, why would they be the subject of so much public debate? This one’s blistered crust versus that one’s tomato sauce... How thin is too thin? Is there such a thing as too crisp?
Toronto’s response to the late November opening of the Danforth branch of Pizzeria Libretto makes the advent of a new Neapolitan pizza parlour seem akin to the second coming of Christ. Even early in the week, walk-ins are lucky to get a seat at the bar, and the place isn’t small. Indeed, it’s cavernous, a tall, industrial-chic room with two huge pizza ovens dominating the open kitchen.
Noise from the eight or so cooks calling orders combines with the heavy bass of the music and the shouting of the clientele. Yes, shouting, because the new Libretto is so noisy that one must shout to attempt conversation.
What I can’t figure out is how you’re supposed to enjoy dinner in an incredibly noisy room where they bring people’s dinners at different times. And good luck getting a spoon for your soup. But the thing about Libretto Danforth (as with the original, Libretto Ossington) is that the food is too good to ignore. Chef Rocco Agostino has, with his partner Max Rimaldi, been blazing Italo-trad culinary trails with Enoteca Sociale and both Libretto spots. These guys have fabulous taste buds and they know how to turn their skills into a top retail experience. Libretto Danforth chef Luigi Encarnacion cut his teeth under the redoubtable Teddy Corrado at C5 in the ROM.
Which explains why the patate e fagioli soup blows every other bean soup in town out of the water. This is soup as carnival, silken bean puree topped with shaved almost-raw butternut squash, barely wilted Swiss chard, peeled cherry tomatoes, smoky ham and chick peas. Almost as enchanting are the arancini, deep-fried balls of lamb neck braised long and slow with fresh mint and melted mozzarella. And the ricotta gnocchi, lightly browned little darlings tossed with butternut squash cubes for depth, slightly sweet pickled onions, crisped pancetta for salt, pine nuts and arugula for complexity. We mind the grease and stodge of the deep-fried egg atop Rocco’s salad, and wish that it were poached, but the salad itself is impeccable – more squash cubes, prosciutto, beets and aged ricotta with al dente Brussels sprouts. Chef takes very good advantage of winter ingredients.
As for the pizza, it’s even better than on Ossington, if such be possible. Ninety seconds in the 850F oven blisters and chars the thin crispy crust precisely enough for the perfect combo of chew and crunch.
The toppings respect Neapolitan tradition but take enough chances to be interesting. My personal favourite is Ontario prosciutto with arugula, tomato and shaved grana padano. There is something almost erotic about the combo of very hot pizza with a smear of tomato sauce that has been pulled out of the oven and then garnished with moist prosciutto, a bouquet of arugula and a flurry of unmelted grated padano.
I also adore the pizza topped with white anchovies, tomato, bufala mozzarella, preserved chili and roasted garlic. This pie, too, is a study in contrast: The little fishes’ vinegary marinade is a charming counterpoint to the cream of the mozzarella, as is the bite of lightly pickled red chili against garlic roasted till it’s sweet.
But how to choose? Quattro formaggi is also divine, thanks to tomatoes, truffles, buffalo mozzarella, montasio, moliterno and Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a splendid blend of creamy and sharp, the mozzarella smoothing the Reggiano, the scent of truffle overlaying it all like a silk shirt on a buff body. The thin coating of tomato sauce, not liquid enough to cause sogginess, adds just enough fruity complexity.
I am less in love with both the cremini mushroom and the Brussels sprout pizzas. The profusion of barely cooked cremini mushrooms is fine, as is the benediction of bufala mozzarella and pecorino for cream and bite. But adding gorgonzola is just plain weird. I am in thrall to blue cheese – but not on my pizza. Same deal with putting Brussels sprouts on pizza. Why?
When they first opened, Libretto Danforth was doing a pizza funghi panna with rosemary, mozzarella, hen of the woods, king and abalone mushrooms. It was fabulous. The combo of mushrooms and cream isn’t exactly new. The French have been putting mushrooms in cream since the Revolution. But this particular marriage was made in heaven. Each of the three different mushrooms had its own texture and flavour; all met the warm, heavy cream in a place next door to heaven. Bring it back, please!
About the desserts, we are not sure. Italy didn’t make its name on sweets, and nor will the new Libretto. Save for the panna cotta, the rest are sadly pedestrian. Serving tiramisu in a Mason jar doesn’t raise it above the trite. The chocolate Amaretto budino (a.k.a. pudding) has lots of Amaretto but not enough chocolate. Sorbet of blood orange and mascarpone and sorbet of nutella with caramel sauce are both pallid in taste and mouth feel. These guys are pizza masters but should not play above their pay grade. When it comes to dessert, here’s my advice boys: Call Gelato Fresco. I can get you the number.