Geographically, Canada is about as far removed from the Italian heartland as you can get, but Italian cuisine speaks to our hearts, as a nation. It’s sumptuous, comforting and indulgent. It also plays to the very core of our appetite; satiating both stomach and soul.
But what exactly is Italian food and how has our appetite for the cuisine changed over the years? Chef Rob Gentile of Toronto’s King Street Food Company says there
are two sides to the Canadian perception of Italian food.
“There’s Italian food everyone knows because the dishes or the specific ingredients have come to be famous,” he explains. “Then there’s the [Italian food] I know from experiencing it.”
Despite his success in presenting non-staple Italian dishes, such as his polpo e vongole (braised octopus, B.C. clams, bone marrow, kale, crisp artichoke and fregola, $49), on his menus, Gentile believes the majority of North Americans still continue to expect the watered-down classics.
“There are a few people who are doing some progressive things or bringing back tradition, but the majority, I can still say, follow the trendy, popular Italian ideal.”
Gentile’s menus take inspiration from Ontario’s growing seasons. Unlike many Italian restaurants in Canada, he imports the bare minimum from Italy — proving you can easily create the essence of real Italian cuisine while supporting local food producers.
As for pizza, Buca on King Street W. in Toronto specializes in rectangular, crusty Romana-style and, for Gentile, there is no other pizza worth mentioning. “I don’t like a sauced, gooey, wet pizza,” he states. “Crispy, crunchy, well-aged (with airy pockets in the dough) — it doesn’t even have to be eaten hot, if you get it right.”
Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality recently opened an authentic-Italian restaurant called Buffo Ristorante in Calgary. Touted as a premium-casual neighbourhood eatery, Buffo’s extensive menu centres around house-made fresh pastas (priced from $14.50), aged-dough pizzas — such as The Buffo, which features an entire burrata ($25.75) — crostini, salads and appetizers. “We’re not trying to be clever here,” explains chef Paul Brans, Oliver & Bonacini’s Culinary Project manager. “We took into account we’re in a mall, attached to Saks Fifth Avenue. We didn’t want to be too high end. We wanted something for everybody — lots of pizzas and pastas.”
Where many of the Italian menu items of the past would be over-the-top in terms of number of ingredients and, often, over-sauced, Buffo celebrates the beauty of Italian cuisine by using fewer, but higher-quality ingredients. Brans says there are many hits and misses when it comes to Italian-style restaurants in Canada — the misses are largely due to low-end ingredient use and inauthentic menus. “While creating Buffo, we often wondered: why do you always have to go high end to get high quality?” he says. “For us, it’s about making the right decisions on what to spend on. Quality products — such as entire wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano — makes all the difference. Even if you’re low budget, you don’t have to use as much of the product if you’re using the real thing.”
Whether you aim to get the majority of your produce locally or want to get as many authentically Italian, high-quality products as possible, you need to find a way to source these ingredients. Nicolas Comazzi is an Italian chef and sales representative at Mosto Foods — a small, Toronto-based foodservice distributor specializing in hard-to-get products for authentically Italian menus, such as 100-year-old Leonardi Aceto Balsamico. “Chefs and restaurateurs today have a lot of product knowledge and know exactly what they want,” Comazzi says. “This can sometimes require a lot of research and planning on their part.”
Nestlé Professional recently launched its new range of Carla’s Pasta — an iconic Italian food company in the Northeastern U.S. — to the Canadian market. The range includes high-quality ravioli, pachetti and sacchettini. Nestlé Professional corporate chef Rick Secko says when it comes to pasta, keeping it simple is key. “To complement the pasta, use only top-quality ingredients like extra-virgin olive oil — a key in building flavours within the dish. Next, look at in-season produce — maybe some great, Niagara-grown tomatoes,” he says. “Finish with some fresh basil and Parmigiano Reggiano.”
Many would consider the right cheese the most important aspect of any Italian dish. Afrim Pristine, Maître Fromager and owner of Toronto’s iconic Cheese Boutique, believes you don’t need a long ingredient list to create beautiful Italian-inspired dishes. “We are slowly getting away from complicated food and going back to the ‘less is more’ mentality and, for me, Italian food is just that,” he says. “With cheese awareness across Canada at its highest, it’s exciting to see what people come up with.”
Saint John, New Brunswick doesn’t exactly have a Little-Italy neighbourhood but, thanks to chef Michelle Hooton of Italian By Night, there’s a place for Italian-food lovers to gather and get an authentic taste of Italy in the Maritimes. “In Canada, and particularly in the Maritimes, our memories of Italian food would have been very much Canadian Italian,” Hooton recalls. “Fast forward 25 years and all the fascination with TV chefs, the plethora of Italian cookbooks available — not to mention how much more people travel — and now there is a real understanding of what Italian food is.”
Hooton travels extensively throughout Italy each year and brings home new recipes to add to Italian By Night’s menu.
“Things don’t change in Italy,” she claims. “There’s a growing number of young, largely female chefs in Italy who, like me, take the classics and challenge them, but tradition and technique are still highly respected.”
Hooton regularly uses seasonal, fresh ingredients found within her locality and incorporates them into menu items. During the summer, for example, she serves handmade gnocchi with fresh lobster and fontina cream sauce ($40).
Chef Ivana Raca of acclaimed Toronto restaurants Ufficio and Resto Boemo reiterates the importance of keeping Italian food simple by using the best in-season ingredients. “Keeping it simple and doing things from scratch — people appreciate things like that,” she says. “A bottle of wine and a bowl of pasta — that’s the thing I’d like to eat before I die. Nothing extravagant. So simple but so good.”
In addition to keeping her ingredients list as local as possible, Raca also makes her own stracciatella cheese, served on Ufficio’s polpo alla griglia (grilled octopus with fregola, stracciatella cheese and green peppercorn pesto, $31).
“Simple food is the hardest to create — there’s nothing to hide behind,” Raca maintains. “Also, people don’t want to sit in a restaurant for four hours anymore. They want casual, quick, small plates — that way they can taste more at one time.”
Raca is quickly becoming one of Canada’s most revered Italian-cuisine chefs. She now leverages her popularity by participating in Open Kitchen Toronto — a dinner series that works for the advancement of women in the culinary industry. “It’s about empowering aspiring female chefs who otherwise wouldn’t have the funds [to attend college],” she says. “We collaborate with other chefs to put on different meals and fundraise for six scholarships for six aspiring women.”
While Canadian-Italian cuisine has come a long way in terms of authenticity, it’s important to remember it still has a place in the restaurant industry. Whether that means using local cheeses instead of Italian imports or leaving Napoli-style pizzas to the Italians. Using great ingredients and keeping things simple is the key to maintaining that Italian spirit.
Written by Janine Kennedy