While the young, cool chefs and culinary ambition cleave to Toronto's core, smart restaurant money knows there's opportunity away from the city centre. Ossington Avenue and the Financial District have more than their share of interesting restaurants. Out on downtown's eastern and western edges, meanwhile, the more discerning of the locals, many of them with pots of disposable income, are starving for what's good.
And so Queen Margherita Pizza, which opened three years ago on an underserved strip of Queen Street East, has once again gone where the good eating isn't with an enormous new outpost near the western reach of the city at the edge of Baby Point.
The room, set into an enormous former CIBC branch, is of a scale that most downtown restaurateurs can only dream of. Earlier this month a trim, moneyed-looking woman walked in behind a double stroller roughly the size of a Ford F-450 and simply parked it in an empty corner. The servers place orders tableside with WiFi devices; it feels a touch tech nerdy until you realize how much time they'd waste hiking to and from the open kitchen at the back.
The design is not what you'd call inspiring: with concrete floors, industrial ceilings and tube fluorescent lights over the stairs down to the bathrooms, the space has only slightly more warmth than your average warehouse store. Yet the tables are comfortable and the feel is friendly, casual, welcoming – surprisingly conducive, given the room's size, to quiet conversation. (It gets louder late at night, I'm told.) They pour Norman Hardie's superb wines on tap at very fair prices, are nice to kids (my pizza freak of a five-year-old loved it), and stream Coldplay overhead, which is aural shorthand for Nothing here will challenge you . It's packed through the dinner hours with ecstatic-looking locals, not to mention steady in-and-out traffic from the takeout trade.
And the cooking? That's complicated. A lot has changed since the original Queen Margherita opened in the spring of 2010.
Back then, the Neapolitan pizza craze had just begun to sweep North America; there were two thin-crust pizza companies of any note in the city, the arch-Neapolitan Pizzeria Libretto on Ossington Avenue, and the Roman-style (i.e. thinner, crispier crust) Terroni chain. Today there are nearly 20 places to get thin-crust pizza across Toronto, from the good (the Terronis, Libretto, Pizzeria Defina on Roncesvalles Avenue) to the mind-blowing (Buca, which isn't a pizza joint, exactly, but manages nonetheless to serve the most unforgettably delicious pizza I've ever tried).
Unlike three years ago, Torontonians now assume that all ovens fire to 900 Fahrenheit, that their pies are flash-baked in less than 90 seconds, that the flour and tomatoes at their favourite pizza parlours come from Italy (which is ridiculous, by the way; I'd love to find a great Toronto pizza spot that boasts of using Canadian flour and tomatoes).
With the exception of a few standouts, thin-crust pizza has become a commodity food. The pizzas at Queen Margherita Baby Point don't always stand out enough.
The restaurant's Margherita pizza – that tomato sauce, fior di latte mozzarella and basil-smothered gold standard for Neapolitan pizza hounds – is good here when it's good, so-so when it isn't. The first time I tried it, the sauce wasn't sweet or punchy or particularly tomato-like, and the crust suffered from too little oven flavour, too much chew. (I had similar reactions to the Napoletana, Margherita Doppio and Diavola pizzas. They were good but should have been better.)
Another time, the Margherita was better: sweet, just perceptibly sour sauce, a blistered, tender-chewy crust, the sultry, high-summer taste of San Marzano tomatoes and creamy cheese. It's dead-simple pizza, not a Rachmaninoff's piano concerto. Some consistency would be nice.
The Rocco, dressed with sausage, Gorgonzola and red onion, is tasty, though the tomato sauce it bore didn't have much punch.
If you're able to process the thought of pizza without tomato sauce, the La Scala is perhaps the best thing on the menu. It combines oozy Asiago and fior di latte cheeses with tender, sweet-braised pork belly, hot peppers, red onion, and salmoriglio – a southern Italian condiment made with garlic, oregano and lemon juice. The La Scala also gets fresh arugula after baking. It's great.
While the pizzas at QMP Baby Point are good enough at minimum, the appetizers can be a disaster.
The Caesar salad, scattered with fried shallots and shaved speck – but no croutons, or lemon, or anchovy flavour – is one of the sorriest Caesar salads in the city; it tastes the way Justin Bieber might sound if he covered My Way. The funghi salad, with arugula and limp baked shiitake mushrooms, was only moderately better.
The fritti misti was also a catastrophe when I tried it; there were doughy, undercooked flour balls embalming tasteless grated zucchini, as well as flaccid battered tiger prawns. Fried food just isn't that hard to get right.
The tuna and fennel salad, with its fresh citrus bite, its mild, crunchy anise of fennel root and its hunks of albacore tuna, did what it should, though, as did the superb sweet potato gnocchi made with water buffalo milk ricotta. And the carpaccio di manzo is a must for meatheads: the tenderloin, dressed with chunky salt and pepper, hunks of excellent Parmigiano and a garlicky aioli, is deep red, silky and powerfully full flavoured, beef at its exquisite best.
For dessert, there's ordinary vanilla panna cotta, and Nutella pudding. They're weeknight good. (The restaurant has recently added vanilla gelato from The Cheese Boutique, I'm told. It is superlative stuff.)
Queen Margherita Baby Point works as a friendly, more-or-less affordable restaurant in an underserved corner of Toronto. It's good but unspectacular. I'm not sure the formula would work in a more competitive spot.
This could become a problem – Queen Margherita has a third location in the works, and it won't be as out-of-the-way as the other two. It's planned for Dundas Street West, downtown – the front lines of Toronto's intensifying Neapolitan pizza war.
No stars: Not recommended
One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution