It's the golden age of Italian cuisine in Toronto. The checked-tablecloth, red-sauce eateries that represented Italian in the minds of many are long dead and gone. Today eating Italian in Toronto means a modern, local-and-seasonally inspired take on the rustic regional food that nona made back in the old country. Judging by the full restaurants and critical praise Toronto is in love with this evolution of Italian. But while some of the city's most exciting food is Italian, so are some of its most mediocre meals. When demand is this hot there's no shortage of those hoping to cash in.
So when I was invited to a media preview of Lil' Baci Taverna, I came with an open mind tempered by the question: could the city really use another Italian restaurant? In the case of Lil' Baci Taverna the answer is yes. This Davisville restaurant is sister to the popular Leslieville Lil' Baci, opened five years ago, and builds off its menu of sandwiches, salads, pasta and pizza. It's the simple wine bar food that owner Mark Bacci, who is a chef himself, gravitated to while filming a movie in Italy. Simple is the key word. That philosophy at the heart of Italian cuisine drives everything that comes out of the kitchen. No matter the region or dish the food is always simply prepared to highlight and bring out the flavour of the freshest, seasonal, local ingredients available.
That simplicity is something Bacci feels sets Taverna apart from the multitude of good Italian restaurants in the city. He told me right now he feels no other Italian restaurant in Toronto is doing simple, stripped-down Italian quite like Taverna. “We've got a dish that's asparagus and sea salt, that's it,” he said speaking of a dish on its early summer menu. It really doesn't get simpler than that and when the local asparagus is fresh and tasty it really needn't be more complicated either.
The primary influence for opening the Taverna was there were many mid-town and uptown customers who would often travel down to the Leslieville location. So with Dundas West becoming increasingly crowded and a mid-town space with the ideal kitchen becoming available, Taverna became a “no brainer”. Chef Larry Santos and his team are making good use of the kitchen's large prep area by making all pastas, bread, charcuterie and the like in house.
That bread has a starring role on the menu, acting as the base for its rotating selection of seasonal crostini and accompanying many dishes. Thankfully it's a well deserved starring role. Its well-baked, chewy texture and slightly-tangy flavor comes from a long, slow ferment and a recipe that draws from famed bakeries Sullivan Street, Tartine and a little gem in Puglia. Surprisingly, you don't even have to eat at the restaurant to get it. As a great neighbourly touch, the bread, which outshines all but the best world class bakeries, is available for sale to those that want to drop by for a loaf.
It's a neighbourhood feel that Bacci strives to cultivate at Taverna. The kitchen is in full view right behind photos of his grandparents on the walls, evoking the feeling of sitting at the kitchen table of a family friend. Building on that, dishes are presented family-style. Bacci said he's worked hard to find the right servers who can have a conversation and suggest a few dishes for your group to share over the course of the evening. And there's plenty of good choices to share on the menu, like the charcuterie. House made charcuterie has almost become de rigueur on Toronto menus, but unfortunately it isn't always something the kitchen excels at producing. In this case it is. The silky, porky flavour of the mortadella studded with pistachios alone, makes it worth an order.
The pizza is also a good choice to share. It too starts with a long, slowly fermented dough and gets cooked in an electric oven at 800˚F. Bacci explained that although there's a romance regarding wood burning ovens, given the quick cooking time of pizza and temperatures that hot the smoke doesn't stick around long enough to impart flavour. They're also much more fickle, requiring constant attention in order to get a consistent cooking temperature. With nice leopard spot-like charing, Taverna's pizzas are more in the thin-crust crispy Roman-vein than the softer, poofy Neapolitan style. In this case the crispy, chewy crust was topped with the can't miss combination of sauteed mushrooms, creamy-tangy taleggio cheese and truffle oil.
Another great sharing plate is the chicken with an arista rub. It's placed appropriately between the skin and the meat, so it imparts flavour while allowing the skin to crisp-up. The earthy combination of sage, rosemary, parsley and wild fennel works beautifully with the warm black olives that are roasted alongside and are flavoured with the chicken's natural jus.
In Italian fashion sides at Taverna are ordered and listed separately from the mains on the menu. Some of the best include the crispy fried bliss potatoes. These lightly crushed whole potatoes are everything you'd want in a starch. They're creamy, fluffy and a touch crispy with the combination of oil and butter crisping-up all those crevices. But best of the vegetable sides is the brussels sprouts. Sauteed lightly to bring out their natural sweet and buttery character, the leaves are topped with a dollop of mascarpone and fragrant lemon zest— these disappeared from the table faster than anything else that evening.
The sharing concept also helps save a little room for dessert. The one to get is the vanilla panna cotta. It has a silky texture and not too sweet flavour which contrasted nicely with crunchy pistachios, a touch of dark chocolate and port-poached cherries.
To go along with the food Taverna has an interesting wine selection of 15-18 Italians—all will be available by the glass. At the tasting an intriguing Lacrima from central Italy combined floral notes of violets with dark berries. It stood out as an exciting choice. If a cool drink is more to your liking there's also refreshing summer cocktails like the Lemon Sparkle with limoncello, fresh lemon juice, prosecco, mint and a splash of sparkling soda.
The Taverna is open from 11am to midnight every day of the week and also has a patio. Although the casual neighbourhood feel and cozy space, encourages dropping-in for a bite or a drink, Taverna also takes reservations. Come autumn Bacci plans to expand the space by opening-up the upper floor for regular service as well as private parties.
Lil' Baci Taverna
2013 Yonge St, (at Glebe)
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.