Of all the ephemera printed on the menu at Piano Piano, the chef Victor Barry's Italian-American inflected remake of Splendido, the maxim about pizza best captures the restaurant's new-found, let's-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously spirit. "When in doubt, have a pizza," it reads. "It's like sex: when it's good, it's good, and when it's bad, it's still pretty good."
Piano Piano's pizza, for the record, has much more in common with good sex than with bad, but then so, too, do the pastas, the dolci, many of the mains and all of the antipasti. And like the menu, the room here, which in its last incarnation too often felt joyless and distinctly sexless, has undergone a great unclenching. In place of the stiff-spined, up-selling sommeliers, the purse stools and the Michelin-star pretentions, Piano Piano has an open kitchen with a roaring hearth, a fun, 1990s yacht-rock soundtrack, an excellent and heavily promoted kids' menu and one of the most democratic wine lists in town – it's organized not by varietal or by region but by the categories $40, $60 and $80. Perhaps consequently, Piano Piano has another thing Splendido too rarely attracted enough of: crowds of happy, moneyed diners.
One weeknight last month, the room, at Harbord and Spadina, was rammed not just with throngs of commercial realtors in shirtsleeves (they'd come for a meeting in the private dining room, downstairs) and grey-haired grandees (former premier Mike Harris sat at the corner table by the kitchen, with his back to the room), but also with crews of fit, tanned, spritz-gulping thirtysomethings in summer whites, and even with a few young families, including a toddler in a frilly dress, whose mother wore what looked like a cardboard Medieval Times crown.
Another night, Shane Smith, the Vice Media CEO, held court over a prime corner table as friends and associates of his stumbled in and out. One of them, a slouching man in a biker jacket, announced to a rapt Mr. Smith that he had directed a David Cronenberg retrospective for David Cronenberg. Another guest blurted loudly, as soon as she arrived, "This is my first night out with my new tits! Whoooooooo!"
What Mr. Barry, his wife and business partner Nikki Leigh McKean, and their general manager, Jeff Dinan, have fostered above all with Piano Piano is a spirit of unchallenging, open-hearted hospitality. Mr. Barry's kitchen, led by the chef de cuisine Jeff Lapointe and sous chef Allison Grundman, specializes in making cliché but beloved dishes feel fresh again.
A standard as seemingly lowbrow as chopped salad becomes extraordinary here, the shredded dandelion and kale leaves tossed with crunchy fried chickpeas and Brussels sprouts, crisp-creamy fried polenta cubes, chopped salami, crumbled feta, tzatziki and briny, chopped green olives stuffed with red pimento bits – the same from-the-jar variety a few million grandmas once served with celery sticks on special-occasion nights.
The chef's spaghetti vongole e cozze gets plump honey mussels and a silky, clingy, emulsified oil and citrus sauce that's at once lemon-drop sweet and sour, mellow from roast garlic, ruddy with chillies and green from parsley – it's as well-balanced and outright luxurious a bowl of shellfish pasta as you'll find.
Bygone standards such as veal parm and escargots in herbed butter find respect here. The veal chop arrives smothered in sweet, ruby-hued tomato sauce and bubbling with milky mozzarella, broiled perfectly to medium. "It tastes like a California sandwich on the bone," a friend said admiringly. The snails come fat, juicy, impeccably seasoned and plentiful, served three to a divot.
And if you like Caesar salads, the one at Piano Piano is only slightly shy of miraculous. The greens – endive, romaine and radicchio – come quartered and grilled so they're sweet and smoke-seasoned; the bacon is a thick tranche of house cured and smoked belly; the anchovies are vinegary whole fillets, and the dressing, spread thickly underneath all these, is seasoned with a rare level of pop and conviction. None of this is new, entirely, but the execution is almost breathtaking. It might be the tastiest Caesar salad I've ever tried.
Mr. Barry started at Splendido as assistant pastry chef at 23 and rose through the restaurant's brigade, which was then run by the chef David Lee, to the position of chef de cuisine. He bought the business outright in 2009, when he was just 26 years old. By all accounts, he poured his heart into renewing its status as the best fine-dining kitchen in town.
He seems relieved to have finally let go. "I'm slowing down a little bit to make things easier on myself and my family," he told Toronto Life this spring. Mr. Barry's idea of slowing down is still a lot faster than many other chefs' greatest efforts, however. His cooking tastes like the cooking of a chef who's having fun.
His pizzas, done Roman-style on crisp, well-charred crusts in a wood-burning oven, include a fior di latte and 'nduja version that's seasoned with oregano from Sicily, and a majestically delicious dandelion pie that balances bitter, mineral, lemony-sour, spicy and sweet, all under a layer of bubbling fresh cheese.
The pastas include an excellent duck yolk raviolo with brown butter and spinach, very good bucatini all'amatriciana and – a special recently – a bowl of the thick, macaroni-like noodles called canestri, tossed with fresh peas, asparagus, chives and whipped ricotta, or as I'm more apt to call it, the primavera of my dreams. Equally refreshing: Mr. Barry has chosen to ignore the recent city trend of serving pasta aggressively al dente. There's bite to the noodles here, but not so much that you pause with every forkful to wonder if the kitchen really meant to leave them quite so hard.
It's Piano Piano's mains, though, that still need work. The grilled octopus on a plate of octopus and lamb was rubbery one night, and the combination of those two ingredients felt forced. The pan-roasted trout, served with fat, pearlescent roe, was excellent. But then the $58 brick chicken for two, which comes both fried (the thighs) and roasted (everything else) was oddly inconsistent. The fried pieces were juicy, crisp and beautifully seasoned, but the roasted were as bland as unsalted porridge. When you pay $58 for a chicken platter, those aren't words you expect to say.
There are enough sure things on Piano Piano's menu, though, that a few misses can only undermine the place so much. And for dessert, there is boozy ginger carrot cake, served in a manner that should make the old Splendido customers smile. In the room's fine-dining days, there was always something served under a cloche, with maximum fuss and tah-dah presentation.
Mr. Barry's three-layer carrot cake, an enormous slab that's meant for sharing, comes slathered with gingery, rum-spiked icing, and sided with spiced pecans, rum-soaked raisins and dense ice cream on an old-fashioned glass cake plate that's covered with a dome. There's a bit of pomp as they uncover it at the table and pour on a pitcher of custard, but it's a different sort of pomp from what came before.
That cake is meant for eating, not admiring; nobody in Piano Piano's kitchen is trying to prove how smart and creative they are. Though we'd already eaten much too much we dove in and inhaled that cake in all of a couple minutes. The room was still rocking as we left.