- Il Covo
- Location: 585 College St., Toronto Ont.
- Website: ilcovo.ca
- Price: Seafood dishes, $7-11; vegetable, $8-12; meat, $8-18; cheese, $7-12; desserts, $9
- Atmosphere: A dark but cozy narrow room, with plenty of wood and wrought iron accents. Italian chanson plays softly.
- Drinks: A long list of Italian wines (20 by the glass, $14-25), craft beers ($7-35) and cocktails ($10-17).
Il Covo is an ambitious, modern Italian restaurant. The punchline: It’s in Little Italy.
Italian influence on the College Street dining scene has been steadily declining. Restaurant openings over the past few years have ranged from modern Spanish (Bar Raval and Bar Isabel) to hipster Asian (Dai Lo and Doma) to comfort-Canadiana (Woodlot) – and that’s without factoring in all the burrito and fried-chicken joints. Neighbourhood demographics are partly to blame. The older generation of Italian immigrants has moved on, making way for an incoming crop of (mostly non-Italian) yuppies in million-dollar homes.
Yes, some stalwarts remain. Café Diplomatico is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, but that’s long been a place better known for beer-drinking on the patio than for accomplished cooking. Trattoria Giancarlo remains a standby for many, and there are plenty of spots doing pizza and veal sandwiches. But walk along College Street and the Italian presence is far diminished compared with what it was two decades ago.
Two new restaurants are doing their part to bring Italy back to the area. Giulietta, produced by the team behind Yorkville’s L’Unita, is a cheerful trattoria located just west of the main College Street strip. Il Covo, meanwhile, is the more brooding, dark entrant, serving complex and innovative food that displays research and solid technique.
Chef Ryan Campbell boasts strong Italian and fine-dining credentials. He was on the opening teams of both Buca and Buca Yorkville, and, in the early 2000s, also worked at North 44 and Auberge de Pommier. He also spent over a year in Italy, working in two Michelin-starred restaurants, in between stints at Buca. His partner in Il Covo is a former Buca colleague, Giuseppe Marchisini.
The restaurant’s menu is inspired by cicchetti, the small dishes served at stand-up wine bars in Venice. Local Venetians sidle up to a bar and eat simple snacks with their fingers, many off of toothpicks. It’s Italy’s version of Spain’s pintxos.
Il Covo interprets cicchetti loosely – here, they’re more fine-dining than finger food, and they take their inspiration from a variety of regions, not just from Venetian cuisine. The restaurant’s original menu was designed around small dishes that were meant to be shared, but it has since dropped the sharing part and reduced portion sizes and prices so that each dish is now intended for just one diner. So rather than splitting five or six dishes between two people, diners are advised to order four or five each. I haven’t visited since this change, but it’s a welcome tweak, even if it is likely to push the final bill higher. The sharing was awkward.
I made two visits during the shared-plate era: once as a twosome; the second time, as part of a foursome. Most dishes could barely be shared between two, but definitely not four, and our server, as charming as she was, struggled to guide us through our choices. For example, the orata dish – raw sea bream with citrus and ribbons of shaved celery – was good, I think, but it was hard to tell when we were given just a half-bite apiece. Small plates of pasta aren’t fun to split between diners either. We were all left wanting for more.
Sharing issues aside, the food is delicious, made by a kitchen that’s full of innovative ideas and references that span diverse regions of Italy. Take the vongole dish – a meticulously arranged ring of deshelled clams with a tiny, fine dice of parsley, lemonquat and garlic, which diners spoon onto little crostini toasts. An ode to the coast, this cold dish is a masterclass on how knife skills affect taste: The clams are trimmed of all the chewy muscles so that just the tender hearts remain; the fine cut of the fruit and vegetables means that no single flavour dominates. It’s a subtle and brilliant dish, and I wished I could have opted out of sharing.
There were five pastas on the menu on my visits and judging by the ones I tried, it’s hard to go wrong with any of them. The scrigno is a hit – a little dumpling of dough, baked to a slight crisp, that oozed gorgonzola with small bits of radicchio (the filling changes often). The stella di ricotta, a small star-shaped ricotta dumpling served with an aromatic chicken broth, was brilliant in its simplicity, the Sicilian equivalent of a matzo ball soup. And the gricia – the less-celebrated cousin to carbonara, made with short pasta, pecorino and guanciale – was an absolute standout. I had to fight my friend for the last bite.
Among the secondi-type dishes, the braised brisket and roasted halibut are competent, but the lamb dish was outstanding, not because of the meat – it was cooked perfectly to rosé – but for its supporting cast of potato. On the plate, the potato appears as a half-circle puck made up of many dime-thin layers. Don’t be fooled. Campbell has laboured hard on this potato, dusting it with dehydrated vegetables and mushrooms, then smoking it with rendered lamb fat. Crispy on its exterior and soft in the inside, each bite is full of complex meaty and smoky flavor – a technical and delicious fine-dining flourish rarely seen in this city.
Desserts tilt toward Italian sweet simplicity: A multi-layered chocolate sponge cake with an espresso gelato; a sweet crumbly tart with a hint of lemon and atop a caramel crème. They’re a fitting ending.
While the kitchen is still working out its kinks, the restaurant hums at capacity. I showed up one night at 9 p.m. on a weeknight without a reservation and I still faced a 30-minute wait just to sit at the bar. Little Italy hasn’t seen a serious new Italian spot like this in a long time. Locals are embracing Il Covo for good reason.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect first name for the chef at Il Covo. He is Ryan Campbell, not Rob as published. A previous version also misspelled the name of another new Italian restaurant. It is Giulietta, not Giuletta.