Who knows Italian food better than a floppy-haired man from Essex? Is that a trick question?
The question does change when you learn that said man is the beloved chef Jamie Oliver. Nick Kypreos, Senior Manager at Jamie's new restaurant Jamie's Italian laughs, "Italian people want to hate it."
Spoiler: they don't. Jamie started young and passionate and has grown to be slightly older and passionate. Whether he extols the virtues of superfoods through his black rice, quinoa and charred avocado salad, or insists that olives be served with their pits to ensure freshness, Jamie has his strong opinions.
Rustic, inviting and meaty. What else do you expect from a meat bar? — Photo courtesy of Jamie's Italian
We can taste these opinions at his cozy yet spacious Italian love letter, Jamie's Kitchen, located in Toronto's Yorkdale Mall. Authentic Italian love letters must be written on or with food; it's the only way.
When people travel to Italy for the first time, they always come back swearing that it would be impossible to recreate the perfection of the food. Why is that? After all, homemade pasta is not that difficult.
The secret is in the environment and Jamie's Italian is in on it. Of course, food columnist Mark Bittman isn't the only one who thinks that food matters. Jamie has perfected his pasta dishes, including a tagliatelle bolognaise that has been designed to be shaped like an octopus.
The ruffled layers of undulating starch are the perfect magnet for Gennaro’s original pork and beef Bolognese recipe, which is served with pangrattato and Parmigiano Reggiano. Gennaro Contaldo is the man who taught Jamie everything he knew about Italian cooking. Thanks, Gennaro.
The prawn linguini which will be Toronto famous — Photo courtesy of Jamie's Italian
There is also an al dente prawn linguini so perfect, it holds a place on every one of Jamie's Italian menus. With a lobster bisque base, garlicky prawns, fennel, tomatoes, saffron, chili and fish broth, you'll be wishing you had a bigger fork for the optimal twirling experience. While you inhale the silky smooth aroma, the staff will describe in poetic language what you are about to eat, because it matters to them.
Planks of appetizers are held up by cans of cherry tomatoes. Some patrons have assumed that these tomatoes are for sale, as they sit on shelves stocked with olive oil, orzo and pepper jelly. However, this restaurant is not for grocery shopping. It's for letting your taste buds be shocked that they've been putting up with what you've been passing off as dinner.
This is one plank you wouldn't mind walking — Photo courtesy of Jamie's Italian
An Aperol Spritz starts off the eating nicely, a pretty drink that holds just enough bubbles to encourage conversation. Appetizers are hearty and conscious; the meat plank holding a history alongside its ribbons of salumi, with prosciutto that has been fed only Parmesan whey. You can imagine the flavor.
Organic and free range meats are insisted upon, but there are also free range waiters and chefs who engage with the patrons as if they had come to their house for Christmas dinner. A week into opening, the lean and bearded Head Chef Frank Venditti had been working for a month straight without a day off. Frank admitted, "It's hard to leave. I'm that type of chef." He smiled as he said this.
You will never see the restaurant this empty — Photo courtesy of Jamie's Italian
The walls are lined with brick and the stainless steel and wooden tables seem deliberately mismatched, as if to say that there is history behind a restaurant younger than Justin Trudeau has been Prime Minister. The chefs wear immaculate navy and white aprons. The waiters wear skinny ties and skinny pants that display the fact that they somehow don't eat absolutely every scrap from the kitchen.
We couldn't stop thinking about the song "Favorite Things" – snowflakes that fall on my nose and eyelashes might be nice, but you know what's nicer? Lemon ricotta served on the side of rosemary and garlic infused pizza dough. Puffed Polenta chips that taste light enough to eat like popcorn. Acqua Pazza (literally "crazy water") fish, buttery soft with olives, seawater, garlic, olive oil capers, parsley and tomatoes. Bone-in Quebec pork chop, brined for 48 hours and cooked under a brick with a base of breadcrumbs, milk, capers, parsley and anchovies.
And don't even let us get started on the epic brownie, which is not even hyperbole. The fudgy brownie is topped with caramel popcorn, fudge and happiness. It's great for diets. Experienced server (and chef in his own right) Donaldo Crecco says happily, "That brownie is all the chocolate."
The flourless, epic brownie: low in gluten, high in everything else — Photo courtesy of Jamie's Italian
Share everything. Gain some weight. Hug the owner as you leave.
In many cases, artists take a while to hit their groove. The first season of a hit TV show often falls flat. A debut album might require some polishing. But Jamie Oliver has decades of experience and he has hired a team that gets the importance of food. It's like having a room filled with clones of your beloved grandmother who insists that you just aren't eating enough.