A3 Napoli A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip.
589 College St. (at Clinton Street), no phone, a3napoli.com
Città * (one star)
92 Fort York Blvd. (at Dan Leckie Way), 416-623-9662, cittatoronto.com
The battilocchi at A3 Napoli, an extraordinary new street food spot in Little Italy, begin humbly enough, as standard rounds of pizza dough. The rounds are floured and stretched and plied with San Marzano tomato sauce, buffalo milk ricotta and provole cheese, and then they're scattered with nubs of the pressed pork terrine the Italians call cicciole. Cicciole tastes like somebody crossed slow-roasted, rosemary and garlic porchetta with a tin of Spam.
That's as good a start as a pizza will ever get, but battilocchi, a beloved street snack around Southern Italy, go one far better still. A3 is Toronto's first proper Neapolitan friggitoria – a specialist in deep-fried cooking. Those loaded pizza rounds are folded in half and formed into long, fat crescents. They're then flash-fried until crisp and bubbly crusted and nearly as tender inside as freshly-cooked doughnuts, but oozing with rosemary-scented pork, sweet, sun-ripened sauce and richly creamy cheese. They come wrapped in brown paper, shaped like comestible boomerangs. They are one of the most perfect, if decadent, street foods I've encountered, although I'd say the same for a lot of what A3 Napoli does.
The restaurant is a project of the Pizzeria Libretto company and Porchetta & Co., the popular Dundas West sandwich shop. It's a fast-food concept, effectively, but with inexpensive beer and wine on tap, a cheery patio, soft, welcoming lighting and communal tables. It's a fast-food concept that uses pristine, seasonal ingredients and employs real chefs in its open kitchen. (Also: A3 Napoli does somewhat more typical – by which I mean excellent – wood-fired pizzas, in case deep-fried isn't your thing.) Just two-and-a-half months old, the little spot is poised to dramatically change the city's pizza game.
You can get other flash-fried snacks here: superb calamari, and arancini rice balls; paper cones of fritti misti, and a terrific $19 gran fritto misto platter for a crowd. A can't-miss: the frittatine di pasta, which is to deep-fried mac and cheese what Enrico Caruso is to Justin Bieber. Or for $4 you can get an order of zucchini fritti, the pale green flesh cooked just enough to warm and sweeten it, and the batter as diaphanous as golden lace.
There are other deep-fried pizza variations: the straight-up pizza fritta is the same as a battilocchio but twice the size and round instead of crescent-shaped; the montanara, by contrast, is as wide around as a tea saucer and puffed up from frying, with a shallow divot in the middle for a daub of buffalo mozzarella and tomato sauce. (Be advised: the montanara is more about the bread than what's on top.) What none of the fried pizzas are is greasy: the restaurant imported a purpose-built friggitrice, a wide, shallow fryer that cooks the pies quickly, before they can absorb too much oil.
Or if you prefer your pizzas baked, there's a roaring, 2.5-tonne wood-burning oven at the heart of the restaurant, in which they do excellent Libretto-style pizzas in all of 90 seconds. A very good Margherita is $11; the $14 specials, which change a couple times weekly, have included burrata and pickled chili, as well as a clam, parsley and lemon version, and roasted eggplant with clouds of whipped ricotta cheese.
My average wait time from order to eating was five to seven minutes, though I'd imagine if the place were crowded that could stretch to 10 or 15 minutes, which is nothing in the pizza game. Can somebody remind me why Pizza Pizza still exists?
Città, a new mid-market Italian spot in downtown's Concord CityPlace development, is owned in part by the restaurant impresarios Charles Khabouth and Hanif Harji, whose names were all over the project when it opened last winter. Being there you'd hardly know that they're involved.
Where the duo's other spots, including Byblos, Patria, NAO Steakhouse and Weslodge, are defined by luxe, spare-no-expense design and often ambitious cooking, Città is a far more modest place. A third partner in Città, named Adam Brown, operates the restaurant. Mr. Brown also owns and operates the local Fox & Fiddle franchise. Città feels like a franchise spot, even if it isn't one. It feels like an Italian restaurant that emerged, fully realized, from a box.
The room, built into the ground floor of a condo tower, is almost suburban in scale: the tables are large and sturdy, the ceilings high and the décor is understated. Outside there's a sprawling but comfortable patio with tulip trees growing into it; at least a few of those tulip trees are still alive.
What makes the place notable is who the partners put in charge of running the kitchen. Città's executive chef – at least for the few months after the restaurant opened, when the food press was paying attention – was Ben Heaton, a serious talent who trained at Colborne Lane and Mark McEwan's ONE before opening the short-lived (but much-admired) British spot The Grove, on Dundas West. (Mr. Heaton is now working on a new project for Mr. Khabouth and Mr. Harji.) The partners also hired David Mattachioni, a 14-year veteran of the Terroni company, to train the staff and run the restaurant's pizza oven. (Mr. Mattachioni, too, has since left and is building a pizza spot of his own in the Junction Triangle, near the Farmhouse Tavern.) That's some highly impressive pedigree for a place that strives to show almost no culinary ambition at all.
The cooking at Città is good, if unspectacular, and the menu – of "authentic Italian culinary classics" – as safe as any in town. The pizzas are the highlight here: they're Terroni pizzas, effectively, with supercrisp crusts that crackle like Carr's Table Water Crackers, and with sweet, nicely concentrated tomato sauce. The pastas vary in quality. We had a beautifully creamy carbonara one night, followed by linguine di mare with torrents of spice and red sauce, but no discernible seafood taste. It was fine, but not what it was supposed to be. Another night's ricotta agnolotti were dry at their edges from sitting out before cooking, which happens, often, in restaurants that make their own stuffed pastas. Otherwise the dish was very good.
The fried artichokes I had were as good as I've tried, but the caprese salad – served, I should note, at the peak of one of the best tomato seasons in recent memory – was made with what looked and tasted like supermarket beefsteaks. They were white at their cores still; they hadn't fully ripened. The salad contained four thick slices of tomato, exactly, and three slices of humdrum mozzarella, and cost a ludicrous $14. The half roast chicken sells for $22 (but without any accoutrements, save a few olives and rosemary; contorni go for $8 each) and is seasoned well and juicy enough. The trout fillet was also fine, while the veal scallopini was dry and sad; it was veal scallopini as your Southern Italian nonna might make it, if your nonna didn't love you very much.
What I can't figure out is why – apart from geographic proximity – someone would go to Città before Terroni or Mercatto, which also do safe, mid-market Italian, but exponentially better. And I don't know why a chef like Mr. Heaton, not to mention Mr. Khabouth and Mr. Harji, would want their names attached to Città at all. Each of them is better than this place.
There are excellent cannoli for dessert, as well as bomboloni, which are Italian doughnuts, our server informed us. We shared a bombolone filled with passion fruit curd and it tasted like a doughnut. It was pretty good.
Atmosphere: A cheery takeout counter serving Neapolitan pizzas and absurdly decadent deep-fried foods, with seating in the back. No table service.
Wine and drinks: Peroni and Flying Monkeys beer, and a decent white and red wine on tap, served in plastic cups for cheap.
Best bets: Eat it all. And maybe a salad to soothe the guilt.
Prices: Fried pizzas from $4 to $13; baked pizzas are $11 to $14; fritti from $4 to $18.
Atmosphere: A friendly and casual room at the heart of downtown condoland. Kind service, nice patio, reasonable noise levels.
Wine and drinks: The wine list is decidedly approachable, with lots under $50. So-so cocktails.
Best bets: Any pizza, carbonara, fried artichokes, cannoli, bomboloni.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $21; mains, $16 to $29.
NB: Vegetarian-friendly and wheelchair accessible.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of people's minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.