Toronto adores Italian restaurants. Given the large Italian diaspora and the cuisine's cross-cultural appeal, it's easy to see why many of the city's most buzzed about restaurants serve Italian. But as the city's food culture has developed and matured in the last few years it isn't enough to simply call your food focus Italian anymore.
So my interest was piqued when I received an invite to taste the food of Maialino Enoteca, an Italian wine bar with a focus on the food of Sicily. Having been ruled by Arabs, Greeks, Normans, Romans and Spaniards and located closer to Northern Africa than to Rome, the influences that have shaped Sicilian cuisine make it as about as diverse as it gets. It's a region where cinnamon, raisins, pistachios, blood oranges, marzipan, tomatoes, couscous, sesame seeds, swordfish, eggplant, rice, and sheep's milk cheese all share counter space in the kitchen.
Maialino's chef Roberto Marotta hails from Milazzo, a port city in the northeast of Sicily that serves as gateway to Aeolian Islands and Naples. So I found it curious that none of the dishes at this tasting featured seafood. He does currently have one fish dish on the menu, which he likes to update regularly with the seasons. When I asked him about the lack of seafood at the tasting, he said that a supplier promised some of the region's famous sardines. But unfortunately they didn't end-up making it in the shipment from Sicily—a hazard when using imported ingredients. He explained that he likes to incorporate local ingredients where possible, like Canadian durum wheat semolina in the house made pasta, an ingredient that he smartly points out is in high demand and exported back to Italy for pasta making. But his eyes light-up when talking about the flavours of his hometown, like impeccable alabaster dried cod and fresh catch the fishermen bring in from Mediterranean. Given this, I wouldn't be surprised to see a few more seafood dishes on the next menu change. It would be a fine way to distinguish Maialino in what is increasingly Toronto's very competitive and crowded field of Italian restaurants with Italian-focused wine lists.
Our tasting began with a salumi plate. Maialino does some in-house curing and slices to order. The highlight for me was the mortadella, made for the restaurant by a friend, and topped with black truffle shavings. The truffles accentuate a silkiness and mild pork flavour in the mortadella. It's a combination that Marotta picked up at a sandwich shop in Milan and has stuck with him ever since.
The next dish was an old school Italian restaurant staple made a little more interesting via a presentation twist. The Parmigiana in Vetro, essentially eggplant Parmigiana—a dish that has origins in Italy's deep south—is curiously served in a jar. Marotta presents it that way with the elements layered because he finds that the breaded and fried eggplant in the traditional presentation is not only heavy, but it obscures the vegetable's natural flavour. His novel presentation delivers all the tastes of the classic without any oiliness. However, I found reaching deep into the jar with the spoon to get all the layers made it more difficult for me to get my ideal proportion of tomato, cheese and eggplant than the conventional presentation. I also found the use of 36 month-aged Parmesan in a mousse to be interesting, but its subtleness didn't highlight the nutty deep flavour nor the crunchy crystals, which are some of the best aspects of well-aged Parmesan.
Marotta likes to highlight traditional Sicilian dishes on the menu, so it was no surprise to be served arancini. These golden-fried stuffed rice balls, which are named as such because they have the appearance of a plump orange, are the universally beloved street food of Sicilians. Maialino's version is made in the just as authentic, but not as common cone-shape and is stuffed with a chicken and veal ragù, green peas and scamorza. The green peas offer a burst of freshness and the scamorza lends a nice creaminess, but I prefer my arancini with a slightly more crisp coating and a heartier tasting filling.
Another Sicilian classic served was Ravioli alla Norma—created in honour of Norma, a 19th century opera by Catania's most famous son Vincenzo Bellini. Here chef Marotta stuffs the ravioli with an eggplant filling similar to the Parmigiana and envelops them in a red sauce made of cherry pachino tomatoes that's so naturally sweet you'd mistakenly swear it's adulterated. I like a little more of an acid-kick in my tomato sauce, but this captures the concentrated sweet tomato essence in these tiny red gems. My favourite element of the dish is the ricotta infornata, which is aged and baked. It provides a slightly nutty and salty finishing touch to the pasta. Think of it as poor man's Parmesan. After all Sicily is one of Italy's poorest regions, but ingenuity often more than makes-up for a lack of Lira in the island's kitchens. This dish also had my favourite wine pairing of the evening, a 2010 Cerasuolo D'Abruzzo from producer Nicola Di Sipio. This dry rosé, made from the red grape Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, had some refreshing confected cherry, watermelon and red candy apple notes. Those flavours and its zippy acidity complemented the tomato sauce nicely. Although the wine list features wines from throughout Italy, it's appropriately heavy with big rich reds from Sicily and nearby Puglia—a little further northeast in the heel of the boot.
The main was a Costole di Manzo al Nero d'Avolo. Here Marotta cooks a short rib sous-vide for 36 hours until it is ultra tender and plates it along side French shallots roasted whole, fingerling potatoes and finishes it with a reduced Nero D'Avolo red wine sauce and a sprig of thyme. It was nice to have a glass of the same Nero D'Avola, echoing the bold and plush black cherry, black plum, blackberry and cinnamon and licorice flavours of the 2008 Firriato Chiaramonte. For me this dish was a glimpse into some of the technique Marotta learned over the seven years he spent in professional kitchens throughout Europe before his family opened their own restaurant in his home town. While nice, it doesn't evoke the Milazzo seaside like the current menu feature of sesame crusted tuna with pickled red onion, braised baby fennel and Sicilian salsa verde.
Chef Marotta and the Maialino team finished the tasting in true Sicilian fashion with a couple of sweets. The first was a warm dark chocolate cake with an intriguing strawberry-chili-pepper sauce. Much more traditional was the Sicilian Cannoli. The house-made shells were nicely crunchy with a very smooth and creamy sweet ricotta filling and pistachios scattered on the serving tray, and appeared to be quite the crowd-pleaser.
I'm looking forward to seeing what direction Marotta's passion takes the menu for Maialino as Toronto transitions from spring into summer. Here's hoping it's full of dishes inspired by Milazzo's coast.
1688 Queen St W
Toronto, ON M6R 1B3
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.