Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re in Italy.
In our fickle dining society, a downtown restaurant that is still a living, breathing entity after 35 years is almost as rare as world peace. So what’s the secret of the continued success and popularity of La Fenice? I call it the Core Values: exceptional classic Italian cuisine; professional service; and, with piano music playing in the background, an ambiance you won’t want to leave.
Enter and be greeted as family–by the family of founder, Louis Orgera. Rita Orgera is there to greet us, to see that our coats are nicely hung in the check-room, to seat us at a white clothed table, and to send out a server with professional manners and an intimate knowledge of the food and wine being offered.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had dinner at La Fenice, and frankly, I did not know what to expect. Would the kitchen still be on point? Would the ingredients still be the best and freshest? Would it be boring? Read on, hungry friends.
Antipasti arrives in all it’s splendor. And as the aromas of the Italian kitchen rise up to kiss my nose, I lean back in my chair and say a silent Brava! Brava! A platter holds a multitude of savories: Funghi di Bosco offers Shiitake, Portobello, Oyster mushrooms sautéed with fresh herbs. Separated by Calamaretti Positano, a tangle of mussels in light, tomato-white wine broth, hinting of garlic and herbs, stands a row of rather large and luscious Grilled Gamberetti. Thick slices of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes and red pepper serve as trays for fine Bufalo Mozzarella. Carpaccio stands alone. This thinly sliced raw beef with a splash of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, wearing jaunty curls of Parmigiano-Regianno is a classic example of the refined flavours of Italy. A glass of Hidden Bench Organic Chardonnay from Niagara, a basket of really good bread and some extra virgin olive oil completes this picture.
Theatre-goers seem reluctant to leave, and have their last sips of wine before they dash across the street for an eight o-clock curtain. We have made La Fenice our evening’s destination and look forward to pasta and main courses.
Agnolotti is made in house by caring hands, and each plump pillow of pasta is filled with ricotta, spinach and sage, and sauced in a lush tomato Gorgonzola cream. I am reminded of a small restaurant on the Amalfi Coast where I ate one plate full and ordered another.
Owner/Executive chef Rocco Fosco tells me that people have been coming here for many years just to enjoy the liver. This recommendation works for me, and after eating every morsel of perfectly grilled Provimi liver enlivened by braised pearl onions and sage, I too have become a believer. Veal scallopini, lavished with dry Sherry and lemon is like the Coke Classic of Italian cuisine. Here, the recipe has all the flavour nuances of the past, and each tender portion is capped with a zesty slice of peeled lemon. Colorful steamed seasonal vegetables update this classic dish.
Sandra Orgero, wife of the late founder, makes all the desserts. I am in luck tonight, her layered Hazelnut, Orange, Chocolate torte is on the menu. Let’s raise a glass to the Famiglia Orgera. Long may they reign.
www.lafenice.ca, 319 King St. West, 416-585-2377
Sara Waxman 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.