A restaurant is like a living being: the heart and soul is the kitchen, the brain is the owner/chef, the brawn are the servers and staff. To complete the package, add a few important emotional factors: Imagination. Passion. Love.
Patrick Groves, Jessie Mak and Mike Vieira, have corralled all these components and created Contrada, and as they say, “It’s a labour of love.” They’ve settled quite naturally into an historic Little Italy address, wrapped around the corner of Euclid and College. The terrace on Euclid has been nicely glassed-in, thumbing its nose at winter. It opens to the main dining room. In the front, the substantial bar is managed by a mixologist who has created some gorgeous cocktails. Do try the Nitro Garibaldi. The wine list is mostly Italian, with those we know and love: Chianti Classico and Prosecco. Or try something new, Italian rosés or an elegant macerated wine (Orange wines). A few nibbles of crostini and olives round out the experience.
So, what’s cooking on College Street? Chef Vieira talks the talk. “The intention is not to echo classical Italian culinary traditions, but to create a menu of authentically Toronto-elevated-casual fare,” says Vieira. “Using Italian techniques and ingredients, inspired by both classical Italian and Italian-North American sources, combined with the use of Ontario’s bounty of beautiful local ingredients, has allowed us to create a menu we’re really proud of.” Clearly, there is an Italian renaissance in Little Italy and these young‘uns, with impressive credentials, are bringing a new sophistication home to the mothership. I like the front room, (one of three spaces that include an interior dining room as well as the all-season terrace,) because of the action at the bar, and the array of gorgeous cocktails being mixed and served. Do try the Nitro Garibaldi.
Did someone say “less is more?” It was me. This menu is my idea of unpretentious excellence, carefully crafted for deliciousness. It’s a difficult choice, but from the six Spuntini offered, I choose Beef Crudo alla Puttanesca. It is indeed what you imagine: sirloin, accessorized with pecorino, tomato, a hit of chili, olive, and to bring it all together, anchovy. I would wish only for good bread, and yes, it is served. There are two salads, and if you have a partner, order both and share. I love the Greens with fig vinaigrette, maple walnuts, beets, and gorgonzola dolce.
The Primi course is pasta, and I almost skim over it, I mean, what can be exciting about pasta these days? Well, I’m the first one to admit that I was wrong. I can hardly wait to pop a Chicken Liver Agnolotti with mascarpone, aged balsamic, apples and sage into my mouth. There are surprises in the Secondi course. When was the last time you saw Veal Sweetbreads Marsala with seasonal foraged mushrooms on a menu? But for me, the triple threat rendition of grilled eggplant, pureed eggplant, fried eggplant with pickled peppers and salsa verde draws me like a moth to a flame. For the apprehensive diner, there is pork chop alla Milanese with the tang and zest of capers, lemon and Vertico Farms glorious arugula. I thought it was a printing error when I saw that under $50 could net us a 14 oz. Ontario sirloin, but no, it’s real and it comes with luscious bone marrow butter and lemon/parsley gremolata. And if truth be told, I could make an intriguing meal of the Contorni with potatoes and broccolini.
We’re feeling the love from the kitchen, and that translates to the caring service. Contrada walks the walk and dances the dance straight into our culinary consciousness.
Contrada, 537 College Street, 416-519-3455
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.