Once upon a time, Italian-Canadian cuisine was a culinary newborn. As a country of immigrants, when families came to Canada, they typically brought with them a taste of home. These traditional recipes merged with Canadian customs and ingredients to create cuisines that can now be found in all manner of restaurants in Canada — from budget-friendly takeaway slices at Pizza Pizza or family meals at East Side Mario’s, to the award-winning haute cuisine of Buca Yorkville in Toronto.
“I’m first-generation Italian and my family brought a lot of their traditions to Canada when they immigrated — especially when it came to food,” says Rob Gentile, executive chef at Buca, Bar Buca and Buca Yorkville. “I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s garden and in the kitchen rolling out gnocchi. My family grew produce, cured meat and preserved anything possible, so growing up, I was surrounded by Italian cuisine and tradition.”
At his restaurants, Gentile says he tries to showcase classic dishes and techniques from different regions of Italy “but we like to reinterpret them, take a modern approach and adapt them to suit today’s diner while still maintaining the integrity of each dish.” At Buca Yorkville, the menu boasts dishes such as Bigoli, a duck-egg pasta with duck offal ragu, Venetian spices, mascarpone cheese and basil ($21); Polipo, braised octopus with veal- bone marrow, cavolo nero, crisp artichoke and fregola sarda pasta ($32); and buffalo-ricotta gnocchi with Stirling whey butter and black truffles from the Molise region of Italy ($39).
The 36-year-old chef also takes research trips to Italy to keep up-to-date with the food scene, ingredients, techniques and interesting dishes from various regions. “The country is so diverse, when it comes to local cuisine and ingredients, the food changes from one region to the next,” he says. “I feel so connected to Italy. The people, the food, the way of life and the land are constant sources of inspiration. Recently, I went on a trip where we foraged every day and cooked what we brought back.”
A TASTE OF HOME
“The Italian food scene has come a long way,” says Janet Zuccarini, CEO and owner of Toronto-based Gusto 54 Restaurant Group, which includes Trattoria Nervosa and Gusto 101, as well as the forthcoming Gusto 501 and Felix in L.A. She says this “universally loved” style of cooking has evolved on Canadian soil. “Our food is only getting better and the quality that you can expect [in Canada] is nothing short of world class.” Tony Cammalleri, corporate chef at Toronto-based Pusateri’s, agrees: “I am incredibly proud of the Italian chefs in Canada and what they are doing,” he says. Established by Sicilian immigrants as a small family-run produce market in Toronto in 1963, Pusateri’s now includes gourmet grocers in Yorkville, Bayview Village and Avenue Road, as well as an outpost in Oakville Place that offers à la carte prepared fare such as truffle mac ‘n’ cheese made with luxe truffle oil and a mix of hand-grated gouda, fontina and fourme d’amber.
Italian cuisine is not just spaghetti and meatballs, says Cammalleri. “It is a cuisine based on the seasons, on local products and on recipes passed down through generations. Comfort food at its finest, Italian cuisine can be rustic or gourmet. That’s what makes it so popular — it’s fresh, simple and regional.”
It’s this simplicity that allows chefs to successfully adapt Italian cuisine to QSR and full-service restaurants, attracting customers from all demographics. Acclaimed British chef Jamie Oliver — the protégé of Italian-born Gennaro Contaldo — also opened the first North American location of his Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain in Ontario. Working in collaboration with King Street Food Company, of which Rob Gentile is a managing partner, additional Canadian locations are in the works. A Toronto outpost of Eataly, partly owned by celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, is also slated to open in the next few years.
CHANGE IS GOOD
Adapting Italian cuisine to Canada extends beyond adjusting to native produce’s shorter growing season. With pan-cultural backgrounds and diverse dietary requirements, restaurateurs need to “ensure they have a range of offerings to satisfy diners of all kinds,” says Zuccarini, including vegetarians and vegans, as well as those with religious or health restrictions such as celiac disease. “We want everyone to have a great pizza-eating experience and that means adapting to food sensitivities,” says Abe Ibrahim, master franchisee for Uran Brick Pizza. “We offer gluten-friendly dough, vegan options, and [accommodate] religious requests from customers.”
“It’s a misconception that Italian food is not healthy,” Zuccarini says, pointing to the fact Italian cuisine is part of the highly praised Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and is associated with lower cholesterol rates and incidences of cancer. “Unlike some other cultures, Italians eat in a very macrobiotic way, using whatever is growing from the land and is in-season to craft their meals,” says Zuccarini.
Changing consumer demands offer Canadian chefs the opportunity to be innovative with Italian cuisine and debunk the myth that it revolves solely around heaping bowls of pasta — “dense, carb-heavy items that have become, in our minds, staples of the Italian diet,” says Zuccarini. “This is why we see the return of cucina povera, or ‘poor food’.” Cucina povera is a style of Italian cooking that came about through necessity — having to prepare and eat what is affordable and accessible — and is focused largely on the use of vegetables and legumes. Cammalleri knows this way of cooking well. His parents came to Canada from Sicily and, after living in Toronto for 20 years, bought a small farm in Caledon, Ont. Cammalleri grew up eating only what the farm produced. “Italian cuisine has always embraced the use of vegetables,” ays Zuccarini. “But it’s the treatment of the vegetable that has been changing — [you have to]show [how] you’re preparing and cooking it.”
Gentile says ingredients are paramount to success. “Even before we opened our original Buca location, we were adamant about using the best-quality ingredients available to us in Canada. We really wanted to produce dishes close to what you would find in Italy, but back then, some ingredients were difficult to source. Now, that’s changed; the demand is there so we’ve got amazing suppliers offering unique ingredients and products. This gives us the freedom to constantly develop our menu, which changes pretty much daily.” Authenticity of recipes is the next trend to watch, Cammalleri predicts — “Dishes made by hand, using traditional methods and regional flavours.”
“What is specific to [the Canadian] Italian food scene,” says Zuccarini, “is our ability to bring innovation to an otherwise very traditional cuisine and give it those unique twists that you wouldn’t necessarily see in Italy.”
Volume 49, Number 12
Written By Carolyn Griso