In the Kitchen With: Rob Bragagnolo, Labora Restaurant, Toronto

Photography by Daniel Alexander

Cooking is in Rob Bragagnolo’s blood. Born into a long line of respected Venetian chefs, Bragagnolo starting cooking at a young age in Veneto, Italy where he spent his summers learning at the family trattoria and bakery. His grandfather and great aunt created the dessert ‘La Fregolotta’ — an Italian crumb cake — in 1924, which is one of the region’s most-celebrated dishes. Now, almost 100 years later, Bragagnolo is continuing his family’s rich tradition of cooking European and Spanish-style dishes.

“The way Spanish people eat and drink is very social and [tapas is] designed for being social,” he says. “It’s reflective of their culture and how they interact with each other. Everything is shared and it lends itself well to conversation — we find people really love that in Canada.”

After living in Spain for 17 years — opening a number of Michellin-star restaurants with former business partner and chef, Marc Fosh — the Toronto native returned to work at Marben in Toronto before opening Carver, a full-service sandwich spot. But it’s Labora Restaurant, located at Spadina Avenue and King Street West, which best embodies the vision Bragagnolo had when he returned to Canada in 2015 to continue his culinary career.

Launched as Campo Food Hall — a mixed-use space featuring a bodega, Spanish-style deli, a bar and bakery, build-your-own salad or grain-bowl station and an Elxr juice bar — Bragagnolo decided to streamline his attention, focusing only on Labora, which received critical acclaim from the public and media when it first opened in December 2017.

“We had a very good problem where, especially on the weekends, we started running out of seats [at Labora],” Bragagnolo says. “We would’ve had to turn away 50 people because we didn’t have enough space. So we decided to just focus on the restaurant. It was better to keep the team focused on one message.”

Bragagnolo uses all the skills from his travels to Mexico and his culinary teachings in Spain, as well as the lessons he learned during his studies at the International Hotel and Tourism Training Institute (IHTTI) in Switzerland.

The menu is unique, offering a variety of sharing plates, snacks, tapas and cured meats and cheese. The Pan Tumuca, a tomato-rubbed Cristal bread (4pc/$6) or the Zamburinas — bay scallops in Galician sauce and chips ($9) — are included on the snack menu.

Charcuterie offerings include Iberico pork cheeks with caramelized figs and marcona almonds ($13) and the Pulpo, which features octopus and chorizo cooked over olive wood, served with potato ($23).

Bragagnolo is enjoying the success of Labora and plans to continue improving the overall experience by bringing in Spanish cooks, products and wines for his guests. “Opening Labora is among my greatest accomplishments,” he says. “It was a feat that I’m very proud of. Doing it by myself — and there’s so much that goes into the planning and the designing — I just want to focus 100-per-cent of my energy on Labora.”

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