Say Si to Toronto's Top Italian Restaurants
By Courtney Sunday
New York and Toronto Local Expert
Occasionally, the world cuts out carbs in an attempt to encourage losing weight or cleaning up a diet. However, when thinking from the heart and the tastebuds, most of us cannot resist Italian food. Far removed from Chef Boyardee, Italian food is a slow process of love, from the hand chopped tomatoes to the carefully kneaded dough. As a result, it can comfort as much as satisfy.
Toronto is filled to the brim with Italian restaurants. Some of these restaurants are authentic, while others have come a far way from Italy. Our choices are as delicious as if you made the plane ride over to Rome. We won't discourage the trip, but in the meantime you deserve the mouth-watering gnocchi at Enoteca Sociale or the fall-off-the-bone meat mains at Tutti Matti.
Many of us cook Italian food at home on those nights when we are too tired to cook. A jar of sauce, some dried pasta and the belly is filled. However, it is a soul changing experience when fresh pasta marries with all-day simmering sauce. Going to one of these restaurants is to partake in a passionate relationship with your food. Linger and savour every bite at any one of our 10 Best choices.
10 Grazie Ristorante
Grazie claims that it "hasn't been quiet since" opening in 1990. Their website is filled with photos of happy customers, stories of opening and odes to ingredients (like the anchovy or tomato). The place attracts crowds, couples and families and it has an energetic atmosphere. You can dress your pasta in cream sauce, tomato sauce, tomato cream sauce or extra virgin olive oil and garlic. Personal pizzas are quite large and could certainly be shared if appetizers are enjoyed to start. Pasta and pizza are prepared per order, and the freshness is reflected in each bite. All this for a price tag that is reasonably low for a night out in Toronto. (416-488-0804)
9 Queen's Pasta Cafe
By the name of this restaurant, we are certain that you can easily tell it is not the place to order pizza. Queen's Pasta does pasta spectacularly well. It is served perfectly cooked and handmade to perfection, from striped butternut squash agnolotti to exquisite cheesy tortellini hats. There over 15 pasta dishes and the dimly lit small restaurant in Bloor West Village invites an air of romance. During the summer, the space expands with a big open air patio that is great for nursing your glass of wine. If you are a fan of the pasta, consider buying some wholesale and keeping it in your freezer. Go on...embrace your inner carb lover. (416-766-0993, 888-661-8888)
8 Trattoria Giancarlo
We had to move our way over to Little Italy eventually when talking about the best Italian restaurants. Trattoria Giancarlo is an intimate restaurant that prepares exceptional menu items with care and precision. Wine bottles are displayed on the walls with price tags in full view which makes for a unique wine selection process. Menu items are often rich, such as gnocchi with lobster and leek pesto cream. Osso bucco melts in your mouth. Risotto is made fresh and will take half an hour from ordering. All the better to take the edge off with an appetizer or two, such as baked mushrooms with grilled polenta that will set the standards. (416-533-9619)
7 Ascari Enoteca
"We love food. We love wine. We love racing." So declares the website of Ascari Enoteca, named after 1950s racing legend Alberto Ascari. Pastas are made fresh in house every single day and the menu changes both seasonally and locally. There are a nice variety of red and white wine by the bottle or the glass, but you can also pamper yourself with a flight and have 2oz pours of some fine selections. Appetizers are simple but executed beautifully, such as warm lemons dusted with lemon zest. The pasta sauces complement the fresh noodles, with ingredients from homemade sausage to pork shoulder with cream sauce. Flawless food in reasonable portions; this is a neighbourhood restaurant that shines. (416-792-4157)
6 Tutti Matti
Some people have been to Italy and fondly remember the flavours. For others, the closest they have come is watching Under the Tuscan Sun on the W Network. In either case, going to Tutti Matti is a flavour experience that is rare in downtown Toronto. Chef Alida Solomon trained in Tuscany and her succinct menu celebrates Tuscan flavours. Her kitchen is open concept in the middle of the restaurant. Meals are robust, like wild boar ragu that will make your eyes roll back in your head in pleasure. The appetizers are equally luscious and well proportioned, like the toscano board that comes with gooey cheese, salumi and house made terrine. You may not want to stuff yourself, but it will be hard not to try to cram as much of this perfectly balanced food into your mouth. ((416) 597-8839)
People in Toronto don't like traveling outside of the neighbourhoods, especially during the winter months. However, it is well worth making the trek to Etobicoke for a special evening out. Luci is Godfather fantastic. The servers are well versed in the menu and enthusiastic about voracious appetites. The ambience is romantic and the food is stunningly presented. From mushroom risotto to al dente pasta to fall off the bone lamb, meals do not disappoint. The owner, Fernando, will often visit tables to reflect on your experience. Try to refrain from kissing your fingers in stereotypical Italian fashion. Words will do. (416-519-1355)
4 Pizzeria Libretto
This is the real deal kind of pizza. You may find yourself enthusiastically affirming the taste of real Neopolitan Pizza at Pizzeria Libretto in Italian. Or, if words fail you, "Mmmm" works well in most languages. This pizza has a soft chewy crust that is beautifully blistered by the piping hot oven. Each pizza is made as a single serving and is not overwhelmed with toppings. Cheese and toppings such as duck confit or house made sausage merely accent the pie, allowing it to be melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The result is a meal that feels lighter than it looks. Even people who are convinced they will just have a slice may find themselves downing a whole pizza. Perfect to eat and then take a nap. (416-532-8000)
Buca is right in the heart of downtown Toronto, and it earns every loonie it receives. Dimly lit with brick walls, the ambience is charmingly rustic. The menu changes daily and utilizes ingredients that capitalize on flavour profile more so than popularity of ingredients. Lamb brains might be wrapped in prosciutto as an appetizer. Don't question it and your tongue will ultimately decide that it is a very good idea indeed. Extravagantly rich dishes include duck egg pasta with duck offal ragu, or pork braised in 34 year old wine vinegar and then strewn across a pizza. The final result is lavish, memorable and upscale Italian food. (416-865-1600)
2 Enoteca Sociale
Enoteca Sociale is built around the idea of wine bars in Rome. Enoteca Sociale manages to take basic ingredients and elevate them. The pasta is made in house, as are many other dishes, included the freshly baked bread that tempts on each table. If you like the experience of eating off of your date's plate, a la Lady and the Tramp, sharing dishes under the menu column "Piatti Sociale" are all unique and delectable.The wine list has over 80 selections from Italy but also includes fine Ontario reds and whites. Normally you have to splurge in a bottle in order to sample the good stuff, but Enoteca offers tastes, glasses, quartinos (a carafe that can hold a quarter of a litre of wine) or bottles. You won't forget this dinner. (4165341200)
1 Pizza e Pazzi
Toronto is crazy for Neapolitan style pizza. This is a strict standard that is determined by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a non-profit founded in Naples by people who really, really care about their pizza. Once you get a mouthful, you will be convinced of the standards. Pizzas are topped with the freshest of ingredients, from mozzerella di bufala to 24 year old parma proscuitto. White pizzas are drizzled with extra virgin olive oil or truffle oil. Appetizers and pasta dishes are also delicious, but you really want to save your appetite for the pizza. Give your respect to that hard working wood burning oven. (647-352-7882)
About Courtney Sunday
Courtney Sunday lived in Canterbury, England and Luzern, Switzerland before returning to Toronto in 2010. Yoga teaching and freelance writing became her full-time professions, as she learned the true meaning of the statement: "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." Courtney now divides her time between Philadelphia and Toronto. She loves the cafe culture of both cities and the ever-expanding group of foodies. When not leading small yoga teacher trainings around the globe she explores her cities by foot: www.courtneysunday.com, @Omathomeyoga.
Read more about Courtney Sunday here.