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Restaurant Reviews Stelvio: Northern Italian restaurant might be too real for Toronto

Zigeuner, grilled beef around a wooden skewer with pancetta and rosemary served at Stelvio in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

1.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Stelvio
Location
354 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ontario
Phone
416-205-1001
Website
stelviotoronto.ca
Drinks
Three beers (a German, an Austrian and a Belgian walk into a bar …) plus a short list of Northern Italian wines, priced in the $50 range.
Atmosphere
A starkly white and modern room with fun black graphics by a Milan-based tattoo artist. Friendly if slow and weirdly ill-suited service: The floor staff don’t speak Italian and the manager’s never been.
Recommendations
The sciatt cheese balls, ragu or zucchini pastas, a dish of polenta taragna and a zigeuner beef skewer. You really don’t need dessert.
Additional Info
Panini, served with polenta fries, available between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Every time I hear someone profess their love for "Italian food," I think of an uncle I have here in the city, who is one of the proudest Italian-Canadians I've met. This uncle loves to eat; his Sicilian mother taught my aunt exactly how to cook for him before they could be married. A few years ago, I offered to make them dinner and suggested that we start with a simple bucatini tossed with blistered cherry tomatoes. My aunt took a sharp breath and held it for a moment. "He likes his tomato sauce made from tomato paste," she told me apologetically. That's the way his mother had always made it.

"But I can make one from fresh tomatoes!" I answered. It was a Mario Batali recipe. The conversation ended a couple of seconds later. Though to me that dish was properly Italian, there was no way my uncle was about to eat it. In Italy, as well as within much of its diaspora, allegiances of taste form at the micro-level first: around family and community, and only then, if we're particularly worldly, around the foods of whichever of the country's 20 main regions a person (or her forebears) happens to have issued from. For my Canadian-born Sicilian uncle, a tomato-sauce recipe from an Emilia-Romagna-trained superchef wasn't real Italian cooking. It wasn't even fit to eat.

But at least I didn't offer to make him one of northeastern Italy's schlutzkrapfen di barbabietole stuffed pastas, or a smorm (that's a sweet omelette from Alto Adige), or a gröstl di patate. And it's safe to say I would never consider taking him to Stelvio, a five-month-old restaurant on Queen Street West that's devoted to the sturdy mountain foods of northern Italy's Valtellina valley.

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The restaurant is named for the Eastern Alps' highest pass, which reaches into Switzerland. Stelvio's logo is of a mountain goat looking stoically from a high mountain scene.

"We were born on cold nights but our hearts know what passion means," the restaurant's website announces. "We are hard workers, stubborn, heroic cheese-makers. We love our wives, our friends. And our cows."

The cooking at Stelvio, which strives to be rigorously authentic to the Valtellina area, is built on cabbage and potatoes, buckwheat, polenta, cured meats, sage, pork sausage and rivers of imported cow's-milk cheese. This is Italian cooking? It's as Italian as my fresh-tomato pasta or my uncle's tomato-paste sauce.

"Everything is fairly filling," a kindly, if not entirely truthy, server said the first time I ate there, in July, in the middle of a heat wave. Stelvio serves Italian food for Italians who forge iron with bare, callused hands and bale mountains of fresh-cut hay and chase wild-eyed livestock through towering Alpen snowdrifts. There's a reason I held off reviewing the place until colder weather hit.

The restaurant is owned by Andrea Copreni, a Milan-based hotelier, and a trio of his friends who travel frequently to Toronto. They thought it would be a great place to introduce Italy's mountain cooking. "They saw the success of Terroni with southern Italian food and saw that it's a colder climate here, so northern food would probably be great," the restaurant's manager, Jenneen Beattie, said.

I like their spirit. I love their eagerness to show the city a cuisine it hasn't yet tried. We could also use a proper Bolognese restaurant, while we're at it, as well as an excellent Genovese one (they do bits of Genovese cooking at Buca Yorkville and Enoteca Sociale, but not enough) and a strong, contemporary Sardinian place. But introducing new foods in this Italian-loving city – even Italian ones – isn't always easy. Witness A3 Napoli, on College Street, which sells excellent fritti and deliriously tasty deep-fried pizzas, a Neapolitan street-food specialty. The only thing A3 doesn't have yet is a critical mass of customers. And they're selling pizza! The stoic alpine dishes of Valtellina don't translate anywhere near as easily as that.

Stelvio's room is Arctic white, with crisp black-and-white graphics by a Milanese tattoo artist. Much of the seating is hard and wooden and brought to my mind fiery Lutheran sermons; many in the crowd both times I ate there spoke in Italian.

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The antipasti are exclusively cheese- or meat-based. A signature starter here are the sciatt: deep-fried buckwheat fritters stuffed with oozy Valtellina Casera cheese. If you're big on oozy cheese balls, you will probably like them.

The pastas are good, if heavy. The lightest, a nutty-flavoured rye spaghetti sauced with zucchini and mint, was excellent, as was the simple, hearty tagliatelle ragu studded with freshly cut rosemary sprigs.

The pizzoccheri di teglio, however, which is Valtellina's most famous specialty – I'm still struggling with what to say about it. It's a pasta, sort of, that arrives in a skillet. The noodles are buckwheat and gorgeous, nicely chewy and richly flavourful and substantial. They're fat, like tagliatelle, but cut short, and then tossed with hunks of potato and softened cabbage. They're then smothered with both dry and melted cheese and sage leaves and then drenched with garlic butter and baked.

I'm struggling with what to say about that pizzoccheri because I don't doubt that it's properly made. (The chef here, Massimo Provenzano, grew up in sunny Capri, but went to cooking school in Valtellina.) I have no reason to believe that it's anything less than a perfect rendition of the pizzoccheri you can get around Valtellina's craggy peaks. It's just that I didn't want to eat more than a single bite of it, because that pizzoccheri goes down as heavy as a bag of hand-forged anvils.

The three of us mostly left that dish to congeal at the centre of the table. We also struggled with the manfrigole buckwheat crepes (they come stuffed with cheese, of course), and with the brasato con polenta morbida, a plate of braised beef that was sour from vinegar and set on good, soft polenta. Everything we tried one night recently both looked and tasted brown.

After a few bites of the salsiccia con polenta taragna – an exceedingly plain pork sausage over excellent, cheese-spiked buckwheat and corn polenta – we gave up on that one also. It's not just that it's heavy: Heavy food is often irresistibly delicious. It's that here the heaviness is unrelenting. Those dishes too rarely balance out the heaviness with even a glimmer of lightness or zip.

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You don't need lightness when you're chasing cows all day up mountain valleys, so hooray for authenticity. But I suspect that Stelvio's owners haven't spent much time in Toronto outside the city's coldest winter weeks. We are for the most part a sedentary, non-cow-tending people.

While it's worth a visit to Stelvio for a few of those simpler pastas or for a plate of its very good polenta, the bulk of the restaurant's cooking is the sort of food you'd be hard-pressed to crave for more than two or three weeks each year.

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