When you walk into a place that you've never been and feel like you're at home, you know they're doing something right.
I'm at L'unita Restaurant and it's a Monday night, seemingly an early dinner hour, but the place is busy.
The boys behind the counter, David Minicucci and Sam Kalogiros, are the Co-Owners and Partners, yet they're making drinks, taking folks to their table, joking with the folks at the bar.
It's like a party in here.
David has been in the business awhile now. He worked his
way up from the Oliver Bonacini Restaurants throught to Luce, Nectar, Harbour Sixty Steakhouse and was a wine consultant at Lux and managed Toronto favourite Xacutti, but he seems like he has found his home here.
It wasn't like they just took over the existing restaurant and opened the doors. According to David, they "Gutted the place, A-Z." It was a "slow process and we didn't want to go too far," but eventually they went through the drywall and found the original brickwork, which they decided to "use as a theme"
It was "a lot of work to refurbish." It was built in 1924 and had a lot of reclaimed brick from that time. They had to polish and sandblast and it took 2 weeks.
"It was a painful process, but a lot of fun," David says. "That's why we chose the name - bringing back old to the new."
The result is stunning.
The warm brick with large glass front. Elegant old lighting juxtaposed with modern bulbs whose filaments burn brightly and black lacquered chandeliers.
A marble bar at the front seats 8 and puts the focus in the front on the space, while intimate tables make for a cozy atmosphere closer to the back.
A flat screen TV plays classic black-and-white films. Tonight it's Ocean's Eleven, the original with Sammy Davis Jr.
I am handed graissini - breadsticks, the size of a ruler, spiked with black pepper and savory spices. They are accompanied by roasted butternut squash and Courtland apple with sage puree. The warm of the squash and the sharpness of the apple is alluring.
Everything is made in house - the daily spread, focaccia, all of their breads, etc.
David is excited by the food.
"We really change the menu every 4 -6 weeks and keep everything local, seasonal. We play off the seasons basically. In Europe, you eat from where you're from - you eat what's available."
And that's what David and Sam are doing here, there's cheeses (mozzarella di bufula), cured meats, risottos, pizzas, grilled tuna - Amalfi style and bone-on striploin - Florentine style.
David is the Wine Director here and a Sommelier.
"It's a love and a passion. I really understand it and am passionate about it."
He shows me the wine list, which is lengthy and offers local wines along with not just Italian red wines, but from the northern, southern and central parts of Italy. He changes the list every few weeks to keep it interesting and is always excited to give someone something extraordinary.
He pours me a glass and tells me, "I think only 3 restaurants are offering this. This is one of the more elusive wines we pour by the glass."
Sensual and intriguing, it's like nothing else I've had before.
To have along with it, I have the Sardine Crostini ($12) with broken olive tapenade and shaved fennel. 3 fresh fillets are pressed (pan seared) with focaccia and served with shaved fennel, olives, lemons and capers.
The hot bread mixed with the fresh fish (that is not at all fishy) is perfumed by the fennel and lemon, making for a velvety, crunchy, salty sensation that is robust and a whole lotta fun.
Next I have the Osso Buco Tortelloni ($17) with sage brodo (broth) and parmigiano fricco (crust).
Dark, tender, robust veal (from braised veal shanks) is minced and collected into 5 loose parcels of pasta, not unlike large, homemade wonton squares. The pasta is just enough to hold everything together and not overwhelm it. The broth is not quite thin, yet not thick - somewhere in between and is warm and sagey and the parmesan crust is lacey and crunchy.
An inspired dish.
It's 7:15 p.m. and the restaurant's full up! On a Monday night.
The place is full of all different types - young, Yorkville gals chat over wine, a group of friends sits at the communal table chattering over humungous bowls of Caesar salad and 2 older couples from the neighourhood sit at the bar waiting for their table, and talk about their latest excursions to food stores in the city.
It feels like a party, like the whole neighbourhood has congregated.
David wants people to "come in and have a good time." You don't have to worry about stuffy service here. It's all very casual and fun, right down to the coat check playing card tags.
Sam and David work behind the bar like a team. Smooth and seamless. These guys know what they're doing. And they're just 29 years old - fresh faced, yes, but with the charm and experience of old souls.
Sam entertains the foursome at the bar and they are delighted. Sam says, "These nights - it's like harmony and madness in motion."
Sam Kalogiros has worked in the industry a long time too. He was a Captain at Mercer Kitchen and Bayard's in New York and managed Lux and Ultra Supper Club here in Toronto. He walks with purpose and confidence and makes sure everyone has everything they need. Although it's extremely busy, these guys have everything under control.
My entrÃ©e, or secondi, arrives. Grilled Organic Pork Chop ($25) with honey roasted shallots and maple mustard. My cortorni (sides) are Potato Fries ($5) with thyme and sea salt and Rapini ($5) with garlic and lemon.
The pork is crusted with Martin Kostick's Mustard and slightly charred at the ends. Soft and incredibly juicy, the pork tastes of fresh fields and the mustard comes and then goes on the palate, allowing the organic meat and swab of natural jus on the plate to sink into your tastebuds. The roasted shallots are a nice touch and add a sweetness to the plate, even with their skins on.
The rapini is bright green and crunchy and presented with a head of garlic. The fries come piled high in a white ceramic bowl lined in pink paper. They are well-done, and cooked with the skin on. They are salty and scrumptious and buttery soft on the inside.
The portions are fantastic. There's no way I'll come close to finishing, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to order dessert.
Doug Neigel is responsible for all of this delicious fare. He grew up in Muskoka, went to college in Barrie and worked at Deerhust Resort. He spent a year in Florida, cooking at a 4-star Italian restaurant and a 3-star fish place. He worked at the Park Hyatt before coming here and says he loves making the fresh pastas.
"I am doing a lot of braising and quite a bit of slow cooking, too."
Doug is passionate about cooking fresh, local food and says, "I want to try to reduce our carbon footprint."
My dessert arrives. It is dark espresso cake, adorned with 2 dark chocolate covered espresso beans and a light cloud of cream with just a hint of sambuca. It is dense and rich but not and overly sweet cake. Just enough after a thoroughly satisfying meal.
A neighbourhood restaurant serving new Italian cuisine with a Canadian heart. How could you go wrong?