'You gotta try this," encourages John Catucci, pushing an odd tower of food toward me. It's a stack of pancakes, with smoked duck meat and blueberry compote, topped with a dollop of goat cheese. I'm not sure what to make of it, or how to attack it. "I see the fear in your eyes," he says, impishly. "Get some of that duck."
So, I get some of that duck, because, well, I gotta. Catucci, after all, is the affable host of the Food Network's You Gotta Eat Here!, a Canadian variant of the American-based Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives that has the Toronto-based sketch comedian visiting charismatic restaurants from coast to coast.
We're chatting at Barque Smokehouse, a popular place of meat in Toronto's west end that will be part of You Gotta Eat Here's second season, which began airing this week. As I work on a brisket sandwich, Catucci speaks about accessible eateries – those unique, homey and sometimes storied spots for calories and contentment.
You have your pick of restaurants to choose from. What are you looking for?
It's a mix of everything, but the style of food is very important. The show is trying to find comfort food in whatever form it exists in. It could be a huge burger, such as the Coronary Burger at Dangerous Dan's in Toronto. Ambience, commitment to the community, length of time the restaurant has been open – everything matters. The production company has researchers checking blogs and reading reviews and talking to people. They pitch the restaurant to the Food Network, which makes the final decision.
Would you describe the places you visit as destinations for travellers, perhaps due to the show?
I didn't realize how much that was happening until this summer. We went back to the East Coast to shoot some more episodes, and we were meeting people who were travelling from Ontario and hitting restaurants they had seen on the show. We went back to Salvatore's Pizzaiolo in Halifax for pizza and meatball subs, and there were people there who said "Hey, we just saw you on TV – that's why we're here." It's weird. I forget people are watching sometimes.
Are there any restaurants that stand out from the first season?
Sure. New Glasgow Lobster Suppers is pretty cool. It's about 20 miles outside Charlottetown. It started out as a farmer's co-op, and they decided to do a lobster dinner to raise some money. Fifty years later it's still there, with the same family running it. It was the first time I ever had a full lobster on my own. I got to choose it and spend some time with my lobster before eating it.
I imagine longevity is important. You don't want to do an episode on a place that's not going to be there in a year, right?
Absolutely. The Hoito in Thunder Bay has been there for almost 100 years. It's in the Finnish community, and they have these pancakes that are thin, but huge – like crepes on steroids, and they pile them high. If you talk about Thunder Bay, the first thing people will say is "Have you been to the Hoito?"
So do you stay away from new places, even if there's a buzz about them?
This place here, Barque Smokehouse, has only been open for a couple of years. We shot here last week, and the food is incredible. We covered the brunch stuff. They do an Eggs Benny, but instead of on an English muffin it was cornbread. And instead of ham it was homemade brisket, with poached egg. The Hollandaise sauce had a mix of barbeque sauce in it as well.
What a traitorous concoction. Sounds like Eggs Benedict Arnold.
Well, they've got lineups out the door.
What if somebody pitches you on a tried-and-true steakhouse? Would that be too mundane?
It's not mundane, but TV wants more than that. We went to the Chuckwagon Café & Cattle Company in Turner Valley, Alta. The owner wasn't happy with the beef he was getting from his local suppliers, so he started raising his own cattle. It was pasture to plate, literally.
There's a lot of meat happening in the shows.
For each restaurant, we're covering at least three dishes, for one thing. Boon Burger Café in Winnipeg was cool. It's a vegan burger place. But they were the No. 1 burger in town. It's weird to say it, but the burgers tasted meaty.
Did you find the restaurants you featured were gathering places? That there was something more happening than food?
It's true. It used to be the pub that was the centre of everything – your local. But now I see the restaurants doing that as well. And when it goes to that next level, it is something special.
You Gotta Eat Here! airs on Fridays on the Food Network.
This interview has been edited and condensed.