Tag Archives: Abruzzo

Spotlight Series: La Cascina

8 May

This is the first in a series of monthly posts about some of my favourite smaller spots in Toronto.  I love getting to know the people behind the great food we have in this city!

When people ask me, “What’s your favourite restaurant in the city?” my answer is, invariably, La Cascina. Since popping in a couple of years ago for what turned out to be a delicious, filling, relaxing, and surprising meal, J and I have been going back more and more frequently. It’s our go-to for a nice meal. We know we will be treated well by the staff who cater to their guests’ needs without being obsequious nor pushy. It’s the kind of place you go on a date, for a birthday dinner, with family or friends to linger over wonderful Italian food and wine.  Recently, I had the chance to sit down and chat with chef Luca and front-of-house manager, Sharifa, to discuss Abruzzo, Toronto and many things in between.

Having owned a restaurant of the same name in the Abruzzo, when chef Luca arrived in Toronto he was disheartened to see that the hospitality he worked so hard to achieve back home didn’t really exist here. He found dinner here to be a standard, two-hour maximum affair, with restaurants more concerned with flipping tables than satisfying customers. “In Italy, eating is a passion. We had a ‘destination’ restaurant: people would drive for two hours, arriving in the afternoon for lunch and staying through dinner.” With 15 years in the kitchen under his belt and yearning to recreate this kind of atmosphere, Luca opened a restaurant in Woodbridge with much success. As they are in the current location at Avenue & Lawrence, patrons are allowed to take their time with their meals, enjoying every last bite.

Of course, a welcoming atmosphere isn’t worth much if the food is mediocre or even average. Always striving for authentic Abruzese food, Luca vehemently explains, “You will not find veal parmigiana or fettucine alfredo on the menu. Customers sometimes would ask and we would have to explain that we don’t do that here. We have to educate them. It was hard in the beginning but we are winning people’s trust.”

What will diners find on the menu? An ever-changing array of beautiful dishes. Cold antipasti platters of cured meats and young cheese; hot bowls of farro, of braised fennel with onions, of roasted zucchini and almonds. Any pasta option they choose will be made to order and will be incredible. There is always at least one meat and fish option and once a month, Luca and Sharifa host a fish and seafood evening (i sapori del mare). These nights feature succulent, well-executed dishes like rich arctic char topped with truffles and briny linguine vongole.

I asked Luca what his favourite dish to cook was and it happened to coincide with the first dish he learned to make: pasta carbonara. He spent much time trying to perfect it when he was younger and, as he spoke about it, you could see the passion in his eyes. Already a pretty animated person, he was practically giddy when explaining that what you really needed is a few key elements of the highest quality. It’s not a difficult dish to create; but, to make it excellent, you have to have the best, the freshest, ingredients. “You don’t need cream. There is no cream in this restaurant because people in Abruzzo would never use cream. You just have to make it right.” Indeed – and he does. I had some that night and subsequently told all my friends about it. I returned two weeks later with a girlfriend and it happened to be on the menu. She is not a huge fan of pasta, but my effusive praise had convinced her that she had to try it. We split an order and the look on her face was one I recognized: pure food-induced happiness.

A question I love to ask people – especially chefs – is the old, “If you were stuck on a desert island, what five ingredients would you want to have with you?” The chef rhymed off the first three in rapid succession: “pasta, bread and eggs.” After a little further thought, he added truffles and lamb. I, for one, wouldn’t mind being stuck on that desert island if he were there to cook all those things for me.

I encourage you all to come to this wonderful restaurant. There is always something new to experience and Sharifa & Luca constantly strive to bring more to the customer. They are budding sommeliers and stock some lovely Italian wines. (A personal favourite of mine is the Nicola Di Sipio Montepulciano 2008.) Come for the atmosphere: meet Sharifa, the ever-gracious and knowledgeable manager. Come for the friendly and warm service. Last but certainly not least, come for the simple but remarkable food. It’s going to make you re-evaluate the other Italian restaurants at which you’ve been eating and may well spoil them for you.

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Review: La Cascina

18 Jul

Every neighbourhood needs a La Cascina: a neighbourhood restaurant run by friendly, accessible owners who produce delicious, vibrant dishes and a welcoming, cozy, fun atmosphere. (Yes, it really is all of those things.) We have been going for about a year now and we are never disappointed. Everything from the variety of antipasti dishes at the beginning to the decadent desserts at the end is plate-scrapingly great.  We have always found the staff to be accommodating and knowledgeable, not to mention charming without fawning ridiculously over clients.

Our first meal there was a three course prix fixe seafood menu that is now a monthly special. The tuna croquettes were the stand out of the five antipasti dishes, but there wasn’t a morsel left in any of the five small bowls that had been brought to the table. Next up was the linguine vongole, or linguine with clams. The homemade pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente and the brininess from the clams was perfect. Salty deliciousness, I tells ya. The main was a beautiful piece of seared trout, with crispy skin that crackled as you cut into it. I said it then and I’ll say it now: it was probably the best piece of fish I’d ever been served.

After that stellar meal, there was no doubt we’d found a new neighbourhood fave. Subsequent visits have only reaffirmed how much we love the place. Their Valentine’s Day menu was an ambitious, mouth-watering, seven-course extravaganza with oysters, cheese plates, risotto, pasta, mains (choice of lamb or halibut…we had one of each) with a side of unbelievably great roasted potatoes and a dessert. (nb – the potatoes were SO good that when the chef came out to say hello, J grilled him on how he did it and then spent the next two weeks trying to perfect it at home. Mission: accomplished, by the way.)

When my birthday rolled around, J asked what I’d like to do and I replied that I’d love to have dinner at La Cascina. So off J went and discussed with the front of house maven, the fabulous Sharifa, what could be done for a special dinner. We were greeted by our very enthusiastic and sweet waitress who showed us to the prime table by the open, garage-door-type window where we could watch the world walk by. The meal opened with the usual complimentary bread with house-made pecorino oil (crazy hot, I must warn you) and then the five antipasti dishes arrived: braised fennel with cheese & onions; roasted zucchini cooked with almonds;  potato gratin; baccala w/ red peppers; and eggplant. Now, I must admit that I am not normally a fan of eggplant. But this? THIS was delicious. It was creamy and beautifully seasoned. If anyone can get me to like eggplant, it’s going to be chef Luca.

And that's just to start.

Next up was the absolutely-to-die-for ricotta ravioli smothered in truffles. As always, the pasta itself was made well and cooked perfectly; but that truffle kicker? Holy smokes. This particular dish had been on the Valentine’s Day menu and became an instant favourite. The pungent, earthy truffles don’t overwhelm the homemade pasta, but they certainly do enhance it. J and I each had four nicely-sized pieces and probably could have eaten fifty more, but then we wouldn’t have any room for what was to come next…

Hello, truffles. I love you.

Following that fantastic pasta course, a plate of beautifully seared arctic char arrived…..once again, slathered in truffles. This is the way to eat, my friends. The fish had a beautifully fatty layer just under a crispy skin, and the orange/ruby flesh melted in our mouths. The fish alone would have been wonderful; the layer of truffles on top was excessive decadence in the best way possible. It was so good, I took a piece of bread and sopped up the teeny remnants on my plate.

Delectability.

After that kind of dish, what could the kitchen possibly serve that would top it? I’ve had desserts at La Cascina before, so I knew I was in for something good. What I didn’t know was that a luscious, creamy panna cotta topped with berries was headed to the table.  Oh, drool. We devoured every little bit of that dessert, happily scraping up the last little bits and then contentedly sitting back to ponder the wonderful meal we’d just had.

Dessert of Champions

La Cascina is one of those restaurants that you don’t come across that often: it balances local ingredients with authentic flavours in a welcoming, warm environment. It’s a somewhere you want to hang out for hours and I have.  (I went in the fall with a girlfriend and we sat for HOURS eating and drinking wine and never once felt like we were being nudged out the door, which is more than I can say from some other local restaurants.) They often have live music and from 5pm-6pm on weekdays you can pop in for a drink and free appetizers. The menu changes from week to week, so some faith in the kitchen is required. On average, there are generally a couple of pasta options, a meat/fish course and sides to be ordered. If they have the figs, honey & cheese plate available, get it! Or the gnocchi with lamb ragu. Or…well, I could go on.

I can’t recommend this place highly enough: it’s one my absolute favourite spots in the city.

La Cascina on Urbanspoon

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