For years we watched and waited with great anticipation for the opening of Eataly in Toronto. What would it look like? How would it impact the Toronto dining and market scenes? We wondered. We lined up. We explored. We tasted. There are four Italian restaurants here. Trattoria Milano opened a few weeks ago and there has yet to be a slow evening.
Sara Waxman: We all love Italian food. Sitting at a window table overlooking Bloor Street’s chrome to chrome traffic and enjoying the rich Milanese cuisine is a new experience for us in Toronto. While we may see an occasional Veal Milanese on a menu, Toronto’s Italian restaurants tend to cleave to the South. Milan is one of Italy’s most affluent cities, the heart of Italian fashion, and with a classic cuisine all its own. The Po River acts as a natural border that divides the regions of the north from the south. In the north, butter reigns supreme, while the south is the region of olive oil and tomato sauce. In this landlocked region of Lombardy, meat, butter, rice and polenta are the stars of the Milanese table, and with so much breading and frying, the cuisine in this northern city seems more middle Europe than Italian.
Adam Waxman: The menu is, as are its ingredients, authentic. It is regionally specific, as opposed to the myriad pan Italian and nonna-inspired menus across Toronto. Having navigated through the market, I look forward to tasting what we’ve just window-shopped.
SW: Pert servers are uniformed in cute Italian school girl dresses the colour of wine, and offer the menus, bread and fresh GranFruttato olive oil that tastes wonderfully green and peppery. The art pieces hung on walls are intriguing and stylish, and suit the room with its shiny, bare wood tables and comfortable banquets. Some of my all-time favorites are Milanese: Osso Bucco and Vitella Tonnato to name a few, and I can hardly wait to try the Eataly renditions of these classic dishes.
AW: This olive oil is indeed wonderful. Beautiful texture, almost milky, and the finish is pungent and peppery. I wouldn’t mind a carafe of this. The bread is fresh from their own in-house bakery. What I like is that after dinner we can walk over to the olive oil section of the market and buy this exact bottle. I suppose that’s the point: to showcase their high-quality product. They also offer cooking classes (for adults and kids) and wine and dinner events.
Our first dish is the Risotto al Salto, a lightly fried saffron risotto that our waitress highly recommends. Its delicately-salted light crunch encrusts the risotto that, when combined with the fondue of taleggio cheese, is a scrumptious bite. We have not ordered wine, but I would recommend it be paired with wine because it begs for a pairing, and there is a substantial wine list to sample that would elevate each of these dishes. However, while tasty, this dish is one note, and would benefit from at least some kind of garnish, even just a sprig of colour—not for instagram-y reasons, but because we tend to eat with our eyes first.
SW: From the section called I Nostri Primi (Our first), we choose two dishes: Malfatti, walnut-sized, hand-rolled spinach and ricotta dumplings showered with saucy hedgehog mushrooms. This dish, with its whole spinach leaves rolled into the soft dumplings, is reminiscent of freshly made strozzapreti (strangled priest). I’ve spied something else I must try: Tajarin al Rragu de Vitello is 40 egg yolk string pasta, textured with an unremarkable veal ragu, but made livelier with sage and blessed with much grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Interesting and flavorful, but not as dramatic as its description.
AW: I really appreciate the smooth texture of the Malfatti. It is not a typical dish in Toronto, and reminds me that there is so much more to Italian cuisine than we’ve yet to be exposed. This is a recipe that would obviously not work as well without each ingredient being fresh, and that is evident. I feel that each one has been plucked from source and prepared just for me. These pop in your mouth dumplings are addictive, especially paired with the mushrooms, there is a lovely woodsy essence that makes me pull our sharing plate a little bit closer to me.
Similarly, the Tajarin al Rragu de Vitello is obviously fresh pasta, fresh ingredients, and that makes all the difference. For me, however, I feel that it’s the veal ragu that saves the dish. Each dish, so far, is simple cooking with quality ingredients, showcasing the quality of ingredients on hand, but the recipes and the presentations are missing something—one extra note to make the dish more dynamic—again, either a garnish of some kind to add colour, or one extra ingredient of different texture, because otherwise each bite, as tasty as it may be, is the same. It’s a very generous portion, but were it not for the fact that we’re sharing it, my enjoyment would be diminishing.
SW: A Milanese meal would not be complete without a selection from I Risotti. I am torn between two risotti: Mascarpone and Hazelnuts or the more savoury Gorgonzola and Pear. The latter wins my vote. This is risotto made right, and each grain is creamy on the outside while retaining a firm little heart.
AW: I, too, am drawn to those two options, and I trust this kitchen that both will be delicious. The Gorgonzola and Pear is exactly as it should be. The flavours and the textures expertly coalesce, and the spikes of 300-day aged DOP Gorgonzola add punch. However, I do have the same criticism as with the previous dishes: it needs one more ingredient to enhance both the presentation and the flavour profile.
SW: Next time, I will come with three others so that we can partake in a dish-for-four of L’Ossobuco of braised Montauk Farms veal shank and Saffron Risotto with an aromatic Gremolata of freshly grated lemon zest and finely chopped parsley. But don’t cry for me, I’m delighted with the Cotoletta de Milanese that shares the plate with a clutch of greens. This really large, breaded and fried veal chop is plenty for two, and remains as pink and tender as a warm embrace. It’s happening, fine Italian food always makes me feel sentimental.
AW: This is an excellent cut of veal. High quality product expertly prepared. This is a dish I don’t want to share, because each bite entices another. It is a generous portion of perfectly tender veal that hits the spot. I would say, in general: quality is high, presentation is basic. Having said that, as soon as we leave the restaurant, I head straight to the butcher, located just beyond the restaurant entrance to inquire about purchasing some veal. It’s that good.
SW: Just as I’ve been thinking that Milanese cuisine sometimes seems to be closer to its northern neighbor Germany, than the familiar Italy, our perky server brings dessert: puff pastry Apple Strudel with apple, raisins, pine nuts and cake, thus proving my point. But why have one dessert when we can have two. Another classic, said to have originated in Treviso, close to Venice, is a lush creamy, chocolaty Tiramisu, served in a preserving jar with a lid. Tiramisu, in its simplicity, was turned loose in the world around the 1970s, and has become a staple on dessert menus everywhere.
AW: It’s the finale that lingers on the palate. This lush tiramisu leaves us on a high note. I pair it with a perfect espresso. For some reason, it is extremely rare to find a descent espresso in a Toronto restaurant. This, like all else here, is as it’s supposed to be. Trattoria Milano is a restaurant that does not cut corners when it comes to quality product. And, upon leaving we peruse the market for the same ingredients the kitchen has sourced to bring home. It’s the best of Italian product and Italian style. In quality we trust.
SW: “We cook what we sell and sell what we cook,” is a motto I’ve seen somewhere in the store, and I certainly am happy with that, as we make our way to the vast display of olive oils, searching for the one served at our dinner tonight.
Trattoria Milano, Eataly, Manulife Centre, 55 Bloor Street West, 437-374-0250
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.