For 21 years, Tony Loschiavo has owned and operated the always reliable, sometimes excellent Paese up on Bathurst Street, also using the premises as HQ of his successful catering business, L’EAT Catering. This summer, he opened a second Paese, down on the theatre strip of King Street West. Why there, for goodness sake? Because there has always been a decent Italian presence acting as anchors of quality in the neighbourhood – La Fenice, in its heyday, and KitKat spring to mind. Also, Loschiavo has looked around and seen the efflorescence of condominia, the rash of boutique hotels, the arrival of the Bell TIFF Lightbox building and attendant business. He opened just in time for the G20 summit to destroy a month of downtown restaurant-going, picked up speed again during TIFF and is now motoring strong – almost too strong on a Saturday night when he does capacity and then some before the theatres fill at eight o’clock, followed by a packed second seating. Energy levels in the room soar but timing and service systems are challenged during the turnaround and the hubbub can tire older, more sensitive ears. I found a lunchtime visit, earlier in the week, far more conducive to conversation and a proper appreciation of the food.
I like what the team has done to the space. It looks very modern, with clean lines and open brick unadorned with any art. Grey or orange panels add interest and wooden columns break up the air in the centre of the room. One major asset is Master Sommelier Bruce Wallner who is in the process of putting together a powerful list with deep strength in Italian wines. The night we were there he opened some rare treats from Northern Italy – Brovia’s 2009 Roero Arneis from Piedmont, for example, and Josko Gravner’s 2004 Ribolla Gialla from Friuli, a glorious thing, aged in amphorae, honeyed but bone dry. The house mark-up across the list is extremely attractive – LCBO price plus $25 – so, the better the wine, the better the bargain.
Chef Christopher Palik does double duty between the two Paese locations and also heads the catering business. His menu reads nicely, suggesting unpretentious but interesting Italian food, using local ingredients and making just about everything in-house. He has his own take on Stracciatella, presenting a whole poached egg in the bowl of very pure, lightweight, parsley-flecked chicken broth. How many spoonfuls of virginal virtue does one take before using the spoon on the egg, releasing that rich liquid yolk into the soup? The loss of innocence is a small price to pay for such sensual pleasure.
Pastas are helpfully available in full or half portions. Hand-formed cavatelli is currently a popular species in Toronto and Ottawa restaurants – here the soft little rods come with diced potato, nicely chewy diced sopressata, chopped parsley, rather salty but tasty clams in their shells and a little thin, clam-fragrant broth to keep everything lubricated.
Mains make use of interesting proteins. A roasted fillet of steelhead trout is wonderful – medium rare with a crispy skin. It comes with creamed parsnips that have been whipped too long until their starchy texture turns gummy and a garlicky salsa verde – a pesto in all but name.
Slow-roasted porchetta tastes of fennel and rosemary, the crackling crunchy, the fat almost perfectly rendered down (but not quite). It appears on a pillow of creamy polenta like an island in a pool of meaty jus.
Side dishes of vegetables are total show stealers – pan-finished brussels sprouts with diced bacon (heaven) or firm, almost crunchy purple, orange and yellow heirloom carrots, halved lengthways and dressed with maple syrup and fresh orange.
Sharing a dessert is a good idea for portions are generous. Cioccolato is a dark, dense, cakey terrine striped with white chocolate mousse and topped with crunchy nut brittle. Nutella (that addictive European chocolate-hazelnut spread) is also an ingredient – though some would consider it to be more a way of life. Bruce Wallner found the perfect wine for such luxe cocoa madness – Justino’s 10-year-old Malvasia Madeira.
Nicely positioned between the neighbourhood glamour of Ame and Luma and the tourist-oriented dives of the strip, this Paese should serve well as a weekly haunt for discerning locals – especially wine lovers.
Paese downtown is open every day from 11:30 am to midnight. 33 King Street West (close to Peter Street), 647 977-2638.