Don't be afraid to venture outside of the downtown core to find the best Italian in the city. It's been over a month since I found myself sitting at a table at St. Clair West's favorite family-run Italian eatery, La Bruschetta. Since then I've fell asleep dreaming of pillowy soft home-made gnocchi and woke up craving zucchini flower fritters - a shared affliction amongst locals, celebrities and anyone else who may have dined in this 28 year old Toronto institution.
The visit to La Bruschetta,
was intended to be brief; a quick stop over, meal and interviews on a Monday evening. It quickly turned into a night of anecdotes, tours, family introductions and cooking philosophies courtesy of La Bruschetta's proud patriarch and co-owner, Benito Piantoni.
"I learned to cook from my father. I make everything, everything here is home made," the Umbrian born Benito professes as he guides me to the cellar under the restaurant. La Bruschetta is more than a restaurant, it is a symbol of a family tradition and a life's passion. Standing in a cellar lined with hundreds of mason jars filled with tomato sauce, stacked and lining the shelves of the narrow corridor of Benito's subterranean treasure chest of Italian foods - he points out everything he's made by hand. Next to a self built wine cellar, filled with Italian wines and hand printed notes, hang homemade prosciutto, capicollo, sausages and several freezers full of perfectly portioned pastas - also made in house. I follow him to a freezer where he reaches in and carefully measures portions of gnocchi in his beautifully aged, chef's hands - corrugated fingers reveal a life of handling iron cookware, shaping pastas and now, lovingly cradle his life's work in the palm of his hand, "This is a serving. Trust me."
The restaurant is two floors, the downstairs, where I dined, is a narrow space filled with tables populated by hungry families and couples on dates. The upstairs can be used to host private parties or to seat an overflow of patrons on busy Saturday nights. The wall to the right of me is a collage of images from Umbria, Italy, family portraits and happy memories. The entrance is a sea of ceramic plates boasting the signatures from the celebrities who have dined there.
La Bruschetta is a quiet riot of celebrity reverence. The Olsen Twins professed their love for the restaurant in the pages of Gourmet magazine, while Hilary Duff, Aiden Quinn, John Malkovich, Jon Voigt, Matthew Broderick and more all dined here on more than one occasion. However, regardless of who you are, you must make a reservation - Tom Cruise didn't and he didn't get seated.
He missed out on Carpaccio ($14) paper thin slices of veal, marinated in olive oil and served with thick grated shards of well aged parmigano cheese. Filetto Fiorentina ($27) thinly sliced veal layered with spinach, prosciutto, smoked provolone cheese and a light rose sauce.
Fresh pasta, al dente and delicious born of care and attention from the palpable attention of a man who loves to cook. Without hesitating, a platter is set on the table, featuring a mighty triumvirate of house specialties ready to be sampled. The seasonally available, Carpellini Fior di Zucca ($16.50) is a bed of angel hair pasta tossed in a buttery cream sauce articulated by succulent zucchini flowers and tender ripe squash. The Parppardelle Tartufate ($18) harnesses the aroma of wine and brandy with sauteed wild mushrooms anchored to extra wide rectangular pasta. Finally, the Gnocchi Gratinati ($15), covered in a tomato, cream and cheese sauce, begged immediate consumption. Rarely is fresh to order gnocchi anointed so perfectly, lavish and rich amongst the rustic simplicity of a traditional Italian preparation.
Closing the meal is the sweet home made Tiramisu ($8.75). The familiar coffee soaked cake layered in between sweetened mascarpone cheese may be cliché however made to the Benito's family recipe; it is decadent in a solitarily sublime manner worth indulging.
One closing word of caution, though. Do not go to La Bruschetta in hopes of a quick bite, the meal is a ritual, and should you make Benito's acquaintance, one accented by fabulous conversation. Furthermore, it is safe to assume that once the hours of dining on generous portions subside to a satiated ride home, the meal at La Bruschetta will haunt you, as it did me, with memories of pillowy soft gnocchi and the regret that I didn't venture out of the downtown core to dine at La Bruschetta sooner.