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Carisma continues a legacy of seductive traditional Italian food

Michael and Margi Pagliaro

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

$115 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip

Some people just can't retire, try as they may. When Michael and Margi Pagliaro sold their restaurant Il Mulino, that was their plan. They're not young, they'd put in their years yoked to restaurants and done well enough to walk away from work. Il Mulino was a paradox, a luxe restaurant on a cruddy strip of Eglinton just east of the Allen Road, but always filled with loyal Forest Hill becs fins with deep pockets. People with money normally won't drop a bundle uptown, but Il Mulino was good enough to be the exception.

They served reliably robustly elegant Italian food - not the gossamer noodles and feathery polentas of Scarpetta, but good, strong cooking with excellent ingredients. And the welcome! Michael and Margi were like your well-off aunt and uncle who never had kids, and your every appearance at the door was their greatest joy.

Clearly it was, given that they lasted less than a year in retirement. They bought a junker on King Street just east of the King Eddie, gave it a lick and a promise and opened Carisma, a simple room done in basic black with the same fun food they were serving at Il Mulino.

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Consistency is a beautiful thing in restaurants. We like knowing what we can count on when we order dinner. It's not like buying clothes, where you get to try something on and then decide. Order dinner, it arrives, and if you hate it, tough luck, they still get your money. Which explains part of Carisma's instant success: Michael and Margi don't cook the food but they take 100-per-cent responsibility for it; they kept Allan Hilario, their chef from the Eglinton place. Most chefs hate being closely supervised, because instead of getting to be artistes and experiment, they're required to produce the same list day in and day out, done the same way. Clearly Mr. Hilario has made his peace with it.

His is a cooking style that Toronto knows and loves. Heavy on big hunks of expensive meat carefully cooked, big strong flavours and hefty portions. This is not a trendy bistro retailing tiny plates of Asian/Ital fusion, it's more like something you'd find in Florence or the Tuscan countryside. In late autumn, in Tuscany or at Carisma, try closing your eyes when the tagliolini all'anatra arrives at the table. The scent of truffle rises like a seductive mist. Forks dive. This is masterful pasta, fresh noodles tossed with that marvellous truffle oil, wild mushrooms and juicy duck confit. The same divine truffle smell rises from pumpkin ravioli stuffed with veal and sauced with crispy roasted pistachios and deep-fried sage leaves in brown butter. Were the ravioli not slightly dry on the edges, this would be pluperfect pasta.

The only error on the menu is the trio of fish carpaccio. To begin, trios are weird. A trio is hedging your bets when you don't feel confident of one item. The best trios develop and extend a theme; the worst are confusing. Combining octopus vinaigrette with mascarpone cream and smoked salmon is pretty much like eating bagels and lox with a dry martini. Dumb. The third member of the trio, tuna with micro greens and a clever little slaw of shaved celery heart and fennel with sweet corn sprouts, would stand better on its own. Ask for that.

Drop in to Carisma on a weekend night at eight o'clock and the place is jam-packed. Check it out two hours later, when most of downtown is just getting going, and it's a ghost town, because the clientele have followed the Pagliaros from Eglinton. These are not the party people. They eat at seven and go home. They love the warm mushroom salad and the perfectly grilled calamari in tomato sauce. They're happy to eat half a nicely seasoned, perfectly roasted chicken and with a whole bunch of roasted veg. Or a huge portion of tender veal scallop slathered in tomato sauce and mozzarella with ungreasy grilled eggplant.

This is not for the grazing generation, not for the tapas people with their cocktails and shots. Carisma is not their restaurant. It's old school, of the tradition that values warm over cool, great service over "see and be seen," and hefty meals over small bites.

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