Tag Archives: Italian

Review: Lisa Marie

22 Apr

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Matt Basile can fairly be called a bundle of energy. In less than two years, he has gone from tables at 99 Sudbury to pop-up events around the city to owning a food truck to opening a restaurant. Oh, and let’s not forget shooting a TV show for Travel & Escape, documenting this whirlwind. You knew Matt, a.k.a. Fidel Gastro, was at an event when you heard the boisterous cries of, “OLÉ!” and when you spotted the omnipresent Elvis bust. Between his enthusiasm and his tasty sandwiches, it is no surprise that Matt has fast-tracked his way to opening his restaurant, Lisa Marie (638 Queen St. West). The menu is comprised of cichetti – small dishes enabling you to try lots of options – and a couple of specials. I went with two equally hungry friends and we decided to order the entire menu, plus one of the specials as it sounded too good to resist. We asked our waiter, Chris, if we were being too ambitious; he asked us to put our trust in him and told us he’d take care of us. If we were getting too full, just let him know and we’d skip right to the special.

So here we go…

menu

The first round of food consisted of: beer-braised short rib on polenta, brined eggplant with tallegio cheese and chili peppers, the (MASSIVE) turkey wing done in a buffalo style and the deep fried pizza with smoked duck and enoki mushroom and asparagus slaw.

plate 1

The pizza here was the table’s favourite: the duck chicharron was the perfect  topping for this umami-bomb of a pizza. We devoured every bite but my dining companions were nice enough to leave me the crispy bits from the dinosaur-like portion of turkey wing…

crispy turkey

Next up, plate two: the deep-fried cheeseburger topped with a pickle and poached quail egg and Lisa Marie’s take on a BLT – the “pork belly cheese thang.”

burger & blt

These two dishes were even better than the first round. I mean…one has pork belly, so…sold. The other is deep-fried brisket and chuck and is topped with a runny, gooey egg. Do not pass these up!

And what was up next on this tasty tour-de-force? One of the lighter dishes on the menu and one of the most addictive. Both delicious, but totally different:

tuna & beef

On the left is the fresh puttanesca tuna roll: ahi tuna marinated in a puttanesca sauce and rolled up in rice paper with a variety of fresh vegetables. Crunchy, light and full of flavour, the rolls are finished with a sweet and sour mango sauce. This sauce was so good one of my tablemates drank the whole thing.

On the right…oh my. These puppies are nuggets of bacon-wrapped beef carpaccio, cheddar and kimchi on top of pickled vegetables. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  Do. Not. Miss. These. Only because we knew we had more food coming did we resist ordering another round or six.

Upon this round of food being cleared, Chris announced that our special, the sugo, would be the next dish to arrive. We had been anticipating this particular dish from the time it was described. It appeared at the table and all six eyes widened:

sugo

Homemade, fresh tomato sauce with bison and pork and a bag of warm, torn, salty bread. Simple, fun, delicious. We ripped open the bag and went to town on this one. We plowed through two bags of bread and polished off as much as humanly possible. The sauce was light and flavourful. I want this recipe; but, I suspect I will be out of luck so I will just have to order it every time I go. And I will. I strongly suggest you do, too.

Leftovers? Not a chance.

Leftovers? Not a chance.

Dessert? Oh, yes please. We knew that there would be a couple of dessert options but it was a no-brainer – we wanted The Elvis. This wonderful, vaguely evil concoction in a mason jar, is The Elvis:

dessert

It’s everything The King loved: bananas, caramelized bacon, peanut butter and whipped cream. The three of us happily tucked in and demolished it in a few minutes. We considered ordering another but decided that might be overkill. (It would’ve been worth it.)

I encourage you to check out Lisa Marie. It’s a cool place – with a little market in the back where I picked up some kimchi and bacon jam – that boasts a fun, boisterous vibe. They are taking limited reservations and I would bet Matt will be kept very busy. I doubt he’d have it any other way.

Lisa Marie on Urbanspoon

Chicken Cacciatore

11 Feb

Me: “So what do you feel like for dinner this weekend?”
J: “Chicken cacciatore.”
Me: “…wow. You were prepared for that question. OK – chicken cacciatore it is!”

I haven’t made this dish in years, but it was one of the first dishes I made by myself. To my recollection, it took me something like two hours to make it but it came out well and I was going to add it to my repertoire. Fast forward six years and I’m making it for…the second time. So many recipes, so little time!

Anyway, here’s the recipe I use. It’s a little spicy and very hearty – hope you enjoy!

Serves 4.

Ingredients

6 chicken thighs
2 chicken breasts
1/2 c flour
salt & pepper
3 tb extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 sweet pepper, chopped
1 c mushrooms, chopped
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 28oz can diced tomatoes
3/4 c low-sodium chicken broth
2 ts dried oregano
2 ts chili flakes

Directions

1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, then dredge the chicken in the flour, shaking off any excess. 
2. Heat the oil in a large pan – I used my dutch oven – to medium-high and brown the meat on all sides (roughly 5 minutes per side). You may need to do it in two batches if you can’t fit all the chicken in a single layer. 
3. Remove the chicken from the pan and lower the heat to medium. Add in the garlic, onion, peppers and mushrooms and saute until the onions have softened. Add in the wine and let reduce for a few minutes.
4. Toss in the tomatoes with their juices, broth, oregano and chili flakes. Stir, then nestle the chicken pieces into the mixture so that they are covered. Bring to a simmer and then leave it alone for 30 minutes.

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5. Remove the chicken from the pan and stir the sauce. Season to taste and then pour over the chicken pieces.
6. Serve over pasta, polenta or rice.

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My Epic Meal at Centro

10 May

In the last couple of months, J has become friends with one of the wait staff at Centro. Trevor has been insisting that we come in one night to check it out; that we were missing out on a great dinner; that we’d be well taken care of. After a few weeks, we decided we had nothing to lose (except the ability to fit into our pants, apparently) and made a date to check it out.

We walked into the high-ceilinged, heavily-mirrored dining room and were appropriately agog. The room manages to be at once cozy and grandiose. We were shown to a corner table with tall banquette seating with a great view of the dining room. We watched the waiters practically dance around the tables, expertly serving their well-attired clientele. Trevor greeted us, took our drink orders and told us to sit back and relax. Since we’d be having the chef’s tasting menu, all decisions were out of our hands which was just fine by us. My only request was no olives, please. (I have a well-documented hatred of them. I have tried them a few times and I just. Can’t. Do it.) Three hours and seven courses later, we walked out two happy and very full customers.

Two separate starters arrived at our table to begin: piping hot arancini stuffed with pesto risotto and buffala mozzarella, sitting on tomato chutney and a beautiful charcuterie plate with boar salami, guanciale, prosciutto, pate, rye crostini and pickled vegetables. Both plates were stunning to look at and had our mouths watering for more. Following the opening dishes were colourful plates of pickled beets topped with that same creamy buffala mozzarella, pesto and light, crunchy bread tuiles. Light and refreshing, this was a great follow-up to the heavier course before it.

Two courses down, five to go. (Not that we knew how many courses were headed our way. Just that we were going to eat. And eat. And eat.) Next up was perhaps the most delicious scallop dish I have ever had. A single seared scallop in a Meyer lemon sauce, topped with capers and brioche crumbs. Incredible. The sweetness of the scallop was offset – but not overwhelmed – by the briny capers, sharp lemon sauce and the crunch from the bread all came together in a few perfect bites.

The fourth plate? Oh my. This was a gorgeous, rich braised short rib and maple-glazed sweetbreads with crispy leeks, a sunchoke purée and a red wine gastrique. Rich, unctuous, sweet…heaven on a plate. The sweetbreads were absolutely delectable – even J, who was a bit dubious initially, absolutely loved them. They were nice and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, just as they should be. Folks, if you want to try something a little different, I can’t recommend these enough. Chef Symon Abad knows how to handle ’em.

Around this point in the meal – about an hour and a half in – I am thanking all sorts of gods and monsters for not having worn a belt. No one plate was huge, but they were starting to add up. The short rib was wonderfully fatty (not overly, though) and rich. I was thinking that there couldn’t be much more. Like, maybe dessert next? J suggested that there might be pasta on the way, but I just didn’t think that was going to happen. That is, until bowls and seafood forks arrived. Okay. So this was not dessert coming up. No, in fact, it was a lovely pasta course (score one for J!) of squid ink fazzoletti (“handkerchief” in Italian) served with crab, mussels, clams and shrimp in roasted garlic and red pepper sauce. Yes, you read that right. An impressive dish on an impressive evening.

“Okay, that’s got to be it, right? We’ve had meat, pasta, seafood…that’s gotta be it.” I exclaimed. Trevor and another waiter came and cleared away everything but our glasses from the table and I figured that could only mean one thing: dessert.

Trevor: “Okay, folks! Just a main and a dessert to go!” *laughs and walks away*
J: “Did he just say a main?”
Me: “Nahhh, he’s gotta be kidding! I mean, we have no cutlery, no side plates, and he laughed! I’m sure he was just kidding.”

Ten minutes later, forks and sharp knives were placed in front of us. Dear god. Trevor was nearly giddy as he placed veal tenderloin and calf’s liver on potato rosti, red cabbage and pearl onions in front of us as our eyes widened. “Your mains!” he proclaimed. As full as I was, there was simply no way I was not going to try this. The tenderloin was seared on the outside, juicy and just a little pink on the inside. Excellent. I could have eaten four pounds of the potato rosti it was so good. Unfortunately, I’d pretty much hit my wall. I could not have eaten another bite of this rich, tasty plate. J fared better than I but still couldn’t finish. We didn’t want to waste anything so we had what remained packed up.

We paid a quick visit to the chef and his brigade to thank them for a fantastic meal. It was nice to, you know, stand up. Maybe we should’ve gone for a walk around the block between courses!

And what arrived for the seventh and final course of the evening? Two different dishes: a lovely, light, layered cake with rhubarb filling and a plate with freshly-made mini-donuts dipped in maple sugar and served with squash-maple purée and crème fraiche ice cream. Oh my. A fabulous way to end an extraordinary meal. We sat, mildly dazed, sipping ginger tea for a little while, watching the staff clean up for the night, contemplating the past three hours of food extravaganza. A beautiful meal in a beautiful place. The pedigree of chef that’s come through Centro is of the highest quality (Marc Thuet, Michael Bonacini, Chris McDonald…it goes on) and chef Abad upholds the restaurant’s stellar reputation.

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.

Simple Bruschetta

2 Aug

Since it was a holiday here yesterday, the husband and I decided to put together a big, easy, fresh dinner. Popped into the market and found fresh Ontario corn, ciabatta bread, beautiful heirloom tomatoes and delicious, well-marbled steaks. The initial plan for the tomato was to simply slice and drizzle with a really good balsamic that we save for this kind of meal, sea salt and pepper. Since we had the ciabatta, though, I decided to make up a simple bruschetta. Good plan, lemme tell ya.

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Ingredients

1 large tomato, medium dice  (just smaller than bite-size)
1/4 red onion, finely diced
1/4 c fresh parsley, finely diced
2 tb extra virgin olive oil (the best you’ve got!)
1 tb good balsamic vinegar
Sea or Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
1 Ciabatta bread

Directions

1. In a medium bowl, combine tomato, onion, parsley, olive oil, balsamic and pepper. Stir and allow to sit 10 – 15 minutes.
2. Slice ciabatta lengthwise  and toast or place in a 350-degree oven to warm and crisp up for a few minutes.
3. Drizzle the bread with olive oil and add the salt to the tomato mixture.
4. Spoon the tomato mixture over the bun.

 

 

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

Sweet Pea Crostini

17 Aug

Without fail, this is a major crowd-pleaser courtesy of Giada de Laurentiis. It makes enough for a full baguette, depending on how generous you are. I made this for a family dinner and it was a huge hit. I’ve been making it since and passing the recipe on. It will take about an hour a bit, but only because you need things to cool before you can work with them.

Ingredients

2 cups chicken broth or water
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes – this is just enough for a bit of heat. Feel free to add more!
1 (16-ounce) bag frozen peas
1/4 cup fresh chopped mint
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup whipping cream
3 ounces finely diced prosciutto
1 baguette, sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic

Directions

1. Warm the broth and chili flakes in a medium pan over medium to high heat until it boils. Add the peas and cook roughly 5 minutes or less, til bright green. Drain the peas with a sieve, catching the flakes.
2. Place the peas, mint, salt & pepper in a food processor or hand blender. Process until smooth. Taste to make sure seasoning is where you want it. Cool for 30 minutes in the fridge.
3. Meanwhile, slice the baguette & preheat the oven to 375.
4. Place the baguette slices on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet in a single layer & bake for 10 minutes.
5. Drizzle the crostini with olive oil and rub with garlic cloves.
6. Whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Fold the cream into the pea puree.
7. Top each crostini with a spoonful of the mixture and a few pieces of prosciutto.

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