It is during the prosecco that your jacket comes off. It's when the saucy braised-rabbit pappardelle arrive that you begin to gesticulate more eloquently. And it's around the time you take your first sip of Fernet Branca that you start pronouncing "robiola" and "Montepulciano" with gusto while reminiscing about strolls through Trastevere. Such is the Italianizing effect of Enoteca Sociale, a delightful new neighbourhood joint from the creators of Pizzeria Libretto.
Daniel Clark, Max Rimaldi and chef Rocco Agostino haven't strayed far from their perennially swarmed Ossington pizzeria: ES is just around the corner on an underdeveloped stretch of Dundas West. The style of food hasn't migrated much either, up from Naples to Rome.
The ambience, however, is more serene here. And the restaurant, while still casual, feels more grown up (ES takes reservations for one thing).
While the team can't be accused of being interior-design victims, the simple room is cozy if a bit nondescript. There's a brown tile floor, white brick walls, dark wood chairs and small tables that require some dexterity on behalf of the convivial servers who must shuffle plates into location throughout the meal. The semi-open kitchen where the substantial presence of chef de cuisine Trevor Virre can be seen managing the pass emphasizes the restaurant's priorities. It's mostly women working the line, which is almost always a good sign (see Vij's in Vancouver for further proof) and especially so when nonna-inspired cuisine is on offer.
The menu breaks down traditionally into antipasti, secondi and contorni followed by cheese and desserts, but there is also a tasting menu served family-style for the whole table. While plans are afoot to change the tasting menu frequently, this one opens brilliantly with bowls of fried artichokes, tender, crisp and imbued with a high mellow flavour. A creamy aioli is provided for dipping, but in truth the petals need no augmentation.
From there, the menu segues into that most traditional Roman pasta: bucatini all'amatriciana. Thick, hollow spaghetti-like noodles are served in a spicy, deeply flavourful tomato sauce studded with meaty chunks of guanciale, cured pork made from the animal's delectable jowls. Enoteca Sociale's version is a straight-up classic one that will have you coveting the dishes of fellow diners who haven't devoured theirs as quickly.
Up next is coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtail). The dark meat rests atop a smooth mound of sunny polenta streaked with braising liquid. Simple contorni of seared asparagus seasoned with lemon, butter and delicate gratings of Parmigiano are jigsawed by the server into place. So savoury and irresistible are the oxtails that you'll want to pick up the nubbins and chew between the bones to finish every last bit of meat and chewy, gelatinous cartilage. But even that won't suffice, so you'll scrape your bread through whatever sauce remains on the plate. Feel free - the Italians even have a name for this action: scarpetta.
This kind of food is made for enjoying with wine and vice versa. Enoteca Sociale continues to promote the idea of "80 wines under $80," but it hasn't quite achieved that goal yet. There are only about 60 bottles on the list so far and several of them go for well over $80. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of good, affordable wines to be had and many are available by the glass thanks to a nifty Enomatic wine-preserving system that uses inert gas to prevent oxygen from spoiling the open bottles. Naturally, the list focuses on Italian producers (with an emphasis on less familiar varietals such as grechetto, aglianico and lacryma chrysti). But there are enough Ontario selections to keep die-hard locavores happy.
Although the tasting menu is thoughtful and - at $47 - affordable, the à la carte option offers gems of its own. Tender grilled octopus, for instance, has a smoky charred exterior and is served with potatoes and fava beans that taste sweetly of slow-cooked garlic enlivened by chili flakes. On another plate, pure white globes of locally made mozzarella are draped with supple marinated anchovies and a drizzle of good olive oil.
While none of the other pastas I tried lived up to the brilliance of the bucatini, there is an impressive spaghetti with black pepper and pecorino. You can tell this is going to be a good plate of pasta before you even taste it just by the way the noodles respond to the touch of a fork: yielding effortlessly and willingly, not clumping together or collapsing weakly.
A pasta this simple is a true test of a kitchen's ability because there's nothing to hide behind; in this case, the dish manages to be both comforting and complex, with a slippery mouth feel and a great balance of pepper and cheese seduced by garlic and oil. As the portions are small, however, it would be nice if the kitchen offered the option of supersizing them. Maybe in the future.
Finally, the dessert offered on the tasting menu at present is a ricotta cheesecake with macerated strawberries. The cheesecake on its own is a little flat, but turns out to be a knockout when combined with the sweet, zippy fruit. It's not as good, though, as the exquisite zeppole with hazelnut pastry cream, which are impossible to share. Order two, as you'll be sure to want a second taste of ES's version of la dolce vita.Report Typo/Error