When a new restaurant opens, especially at this time, we take notice. When it’s an Italian restaurant we immediately look up their menu to see if it stands out. If it does, we’re there.
Sara Waxman: Anita and Alan Thomson, the savvy owners of Sotto Voce Wine & Pasta Bar, jumped at the opportunity to open Zitto Zitto Taverna on the newly available, hallowed corner of Clinton and College, and to hire Chef Alessandro Militello, whose last job was at his own restaurant in Palermo, Sicily.
Adam Waxman: We never tire of pasta. It is emotionally fulfilling. But we’re excited by regional recipes that haven’t already made their rounds on every other Italian menu, and are intrigued by this Sicilian inspiration. Sicilian cuisine is one of the original fusion cuisines in the world. It’s an amalgam of influences from Spain, Greece and North Africa all contributing their spices and ingredients into a mellifluous blend of aromas twined into each forkful of southern Italian soul food. Chef Militello is Sicilian. His menu of grilled meats and seafood reflects his Sicilian roots and our hearty appetites.
SW: What’s this? What’s this? Swordfish carpaccio with lemon and olive oil. Grilled sardines with tomato crostini. Calamari in a sauce of garlic, white wine and black squid ink. This, is the handiwork of Chef Militello and transports us to a warm patio in Taormina.
AW: The ambience of warm light, brick and wood is stamped with a hip attitude of rustic wine and the Mona Lisa blowing bubble gum.
SW: Outfitted to seat 100, the space is separated into quarters that flow seamlessly into each other. The cocktail bar invites the glamourous to recline on its deep banquets, and be comforted by gold sequin pillows. The bartender has a presence in his domain and can mix a mean Negroni, not an easy cocktail to make perfectly. Strolling through a corridor lined with temperature-controlled floor-to-ceiling wine cabinets, we enter La Cantina, the private dining room whose walls are wine cabinets and whose doors close on both sides.
I love the focal point of the room, a large round dining table set under a massive chandelier. It’s reminiscent of traditional family dining rooms of decades ago. This leads to the main dining room. Exposed brick walls are hung with framed photos of a family history: wedding photos; children; family festivals and gatherings, all are important moments captured to share with all of us. This leads to the large covered, well heated terrace on the Clinton St. side, away from the traffic.
We’re on the terrace, looked after by a server who knows the menu and how to open and pour a bottle of wine.
AW: When in Rome, right? I’d like to try a Sicilian wine. It is such a relief and a joy to be able to let go and entrust our waiter and defer to his knowledge of the food, the wine, and the right pairing. He knows his stuff and is clearly passionate about it. We’re happily in his hands. His suggestion, based on what we’ve ordered, is an organic Sicilian VinoLauria Nerello Mascalese 2018. It is earthy and lush but without the weight of sulfites or heavy tannins, and it pairs swimmingly with each of our dishes. I could enjoy sitting here and just passing the time with this bottle and the wonderful warm bread with olive oil. We can taste the care in each ingredient.
SW: A plate of three perfectly fresh sardines, crosshatched from the grill to the right second so that the flesh lifts easily from the bones, gets a good squeeze of lemon. And we are all happy. Right here, we have the oceanic delights from the coast of Sicily. Anthony Bourdain comes to mind, and the unforgettable segment of his fishing experience in those waters. Even our waiter chimes in, because, who could not.
AW: And on that note, this octopus is treated with respect. Grilled so tenderly, its seasoning and charcoal essence, and it’s meticulous presentation all elevate this dish and with such a delicate touch. It is meaty and splashed with olive oil and lemon, and when paired with the wine, I feel like I’m on holiday.
SW: Strong flavours need a palate refresher, and, as they do in Sicily, we enjoy a salad of sliced orange, shaved fennel, black olives and mint.
AW: Okay… We’ve all been cooking pasta for the past year and a half. I guarantee you, nobody makes it like this. This is the most wonderfully satisfying pasta I can remember having. It’s simply delicious. Chef Militello has a velvet touch and nourishes this bowl of pasta with such richness that I don’t think I ever enjoyed as much in Sicily. The pistachio pesto is delectable. It’s texture is luxurious. The delicate crunch. It’s almost-sweet and lavishes the linguine in harmony with the orange zest that balances and compliments the slightly piney, minty notes of the pistachio. The cherry tomatoes, too, have a deliberate balance of acidity that accentuates the flavour profile of this dish. And, let’s not forget these plump black tiger shrimp crowning the ample portion of linguine. This is easily the best pasta dish in Toronto right now.
SW: Griglia Mista is a still life that almost leaps from the plate. A lobster tail curls around calamari, shrimp and scallop and is perfumed with herb-infused olive oil. This may well be the traditional cuisine of Sicily, but it is definitely the way I like to eat today. It’s the perfect antidote to these times, and pairing it with the wine is something that deserves to be shared with someone you love. It’s really that good.
Come cold weather, with hunger on my side, I will return with a worthy friend to share the traditional Zuppa di Pesce and the 32 oz. porterhouse, Steak Fiorentino.
The décor and style of Zitto Zitto so perfectly matches the style of the menu, I wonder which came first. A lot of love and experience has gone into building the welcome into these rooms, and both these attributes are reflected by the delectable dishes that come out of the kitchen.
Zitto Zitto Taverna ~ 593 College Street ~ zittozittotaverna.ca
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.