At first they envisioned a classic American road trip, mapping a path across the continent to sample its best Italian restaurants.
But then Toronto’s Rob Rossi and David Minicucci thought through the logistics. Conducting a survey of perfect pasta by car wouldn’t work because they simply didn’t have the time.
They wondered about focusing on Santa Barbara instead, à la Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, but scratched that cinematic notion. Central California's wine region didn't have enough of the food they wanted to sample.
So instead the duo, who planned this pilgrimage to conduct research for their new Toronto eatery, Giulietta, hopped a plane to, of all places, sweltering Phoenix.
The desert city is not considered a foodie destination; but, actually, if you're seeking award-winning Italian, it is one. Phoenix is home to iconic Italian chef Chris Bianco, whose 30-year-old namesake, Pizzeria Bianco, arguably makes the best pizza in North America and is the only pie joint to ever win that coveted culinary Oscar, the James Beard Award.
It did not disappoint. ''What makes his cooking special is that he uses everything around him: local wheat flours, tomatoes he grows, mozzarella cheese he makes himself. Everything is fresh and simple,'' says Rossi, whose former restaurant was Little Italy's popular Bestellen, in the location where Giulietta lives now.
''Bianco is the antithesis of what a lot of Italian chefs are doing these days, which is importing Italian products.''
From Phoenix, the friends moved on to Los Angeles, where they dined on primo pastas at master Italian baker and chef Nancy Silverton's four restaurants, including the three variations of Mozza and meat-focused Chi Spacca (all interconnected on one block corner in West Hollywood). Then they ventured to L.A. hot spot Felix Trattoria, the brainchild of Toronto restaurateur Janet Zuccarini.
''We basically ate their entire pasta menu,'' says Minicucci, who mans the front of Giulietta's house while chef Rossi oversees the kitchen. ''The Tonnarelli cacio e pepe and Malloreddus [noodles similar to gnocchetti with saffron, ragu d'agnello and fiore sardo] were particularly good, but we truly devoured everything,'' he says.
The theme of balance and basics carried through the rest of their exhausting 24day, 38-establishment trip, which included stops in San Francisco (Cotogna, La Ciccia), Chicago (Monteverde), Philadelphia (Pizzeria Vetri and the rest of revered chef Marc Vetri's chain), New York (Le Coucou, Via Carota) and finally Montreal (Nora Gray and Le Bremner).
''Montreal was our sole Canadian stop mainly because we ran out of time,'' says Rossi. ''But for both of us, Montreal is special in the sense that it’s such a Europeanfeeling city. The restaurants exude that rare family-style approach to dining where every night out is a feast. It’s all about sharing with friends and family, starting with a cocktail, having a bottle of white, a bottle of red, three to five courses, then cheese, desert and an after-dinner drink. It’s a communal experience.''
Bolstered by their road research, the pair opened Giulietta in April, offering homespun Italian dishes with an understated but distinctively modern twist.
Dishes like saltimbocca use capons from a farm in Quebec instead of veal, while an octopus dish marries heritage cannellini beans with a mollusc from Morocco.
''In Phoenix, we learned that sometimes it's good to take a step back with the food, and rely more on putting out something that is simple and beautiful,'' says Rossi. Giulietta's popular cacio e pepe is a prime example of that humble ethos, a classic Roman pasta that is essentially just noodles, pecorino cheese and kampot pepper from Cambodia. ''The main thing we took away from the trip is that the most amazing restaurants follow the same recipe: Put the best product on the table in the simplest and most beautiful way,'' says Minicucci, who also owns Italian stalwart L'Unità in the city's Yorkville neighbourhood (he and Rossi met and bonded over food when Rossi came on board to revamp L'Unità's menu).
''I've always wanted to open a classic Italian restaurant, but with a modern sensibility,'' says Rossi. ''However, neither one of us were interested in making any kind of statement. For a long time in Toronto the idea has been to push the envelope and do something drastically different, just to be noticed.''
Their 80-seat space is chic, classic and refined. ''We like to say it's a new vision for an Italian restaurant in Toronto,'' says Minicucci, referring to the decor's mix of white marble, oxidized red metal beams, brick walls, sleek fluorescent lighting and striking terrazzo floors. While the food is of utmost importance, both Rossi and Minicucci say it's the feeling that their customers leave with that is most important to them.
''Food is only a small part of it,'' says Rossi. ''The rest is being hospitable, warm and genuine to every person visiting our home away from home.''
For more information, visit giu.ca.