As we revel in the seasonal autumn produce of Ontario, it’s easy to forget that it’s harvest time in other parts of the world as well.In Italy, they’re enjoying tomatoes, root vegetables and cabbage just as we are, but there’s also the addition of fragrant truffles, plump buffala mozzarella, chestnuts, seasonal fish and game meats on the plate.
To celebrate the delights of the autumn season, the Italian Trade Commission and twenty-one Italian restaurants in the Toronto area are putting together special tasting menus that highlight the very best of fall in Italy as part of the Autunno Italian Seasons Festival.
From November 7th to 22nd, participating restaurants will be offering up special dishes and selections from their own menus that exemplify the best of Italian regional cooking. We had the opportunity to visit two of the participating restaurants recently for a preview of their festival menus.
At 7 Numbers on the Danforth (307 Danforth Avenue) Chef Anthony Marinuzzi cooks up the simple, hearty southern Italian fare he learned from his mother, the famous Rosa of the Eglinton location of the restaurant. The room is cozy, with hardwood floors and intentionally mis-matched chairs and tableware, giving the place the feeling of a big community party or potluck.
The food is no potluck fare, however, as Marinuzzi offers up a selection of dishes featuring protected designation of origin products (DOP) from Italy including prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto San Daniele served with hot plump house-made fritelle (you really can’t go wrong with a plate of prosciutto and fried dough!). The di Parma product is fairly well-known in North America but Marinuzzi tells us the San Daniele prosciutto is new even to him. It’s sliced gauze thin and melts on the tongue – beautiful.
Marinuzzi makes good use of a hearty DOP gorgonzola, using it as a garnish for a chilled green bean salad, and featured in a cheese plate along with fresh figs and walnuts.
Bufala mozzarella is obviously in season in Italy right now, as it appears on many of the menus for the Italian Seasons festival. After a summer of munching on sweet grass, the Italian water buffalo are providing cheesemakers with a beautiful product and they in turn are making beautiful cheese. The bocconcini we try at 7 Numbers is served in a simple Caprese-style salad atop fresh Ontario tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and fresh basil. So simple, yet so delicious, and the outside of the cheese gives way to a creamy centre that makes us swoon.
Grilled fresh sardines have their natural fishiness cut by a roasted tomato salsa. I’m inclined to not like this at the beginning, just because of a lifetime of hating canned sardines, but I can’t help but finish this off.
Egg noodles are tossed for the spaghetti alla chitarra with some beautiful Callipo tuna, one of the DOP ingredients brought in for use during the festival, and Marinuzzi has much praise for the product, cooking up a big batch for his staff’s evening meal along with our portion so they can try it. He plans on using the tuna all the time now.
The involtine di manzo uses more of those DOP products again as thinly sliced striploin gets rolled around prosciutto di Parma, green onions and Talegio cheese, and served with caramelized onions.
Marinuzzi points out that the Puglia region of Italy, where his family is from, is a poor area with simple dishes, lots of baking and no cream or butter. Like many southern Italian restaurants, he doesn’t even have butter on the premises, but serves up bread with a fruity Pugliese extra virgin olive oil. The influences in his cooking (which he does mostly himself – the night we’re there, he works the stoves alone with one prep cook in the kitchen with him) make for a down-to-earth, hearty meal full of vibrant flavours and textures that completely reflect southern Italy.
As a foil to the laid-back atmosphere of 7 Numbers, we head to Ave and Dav for a visit to Mistura (265 Davenport Road), the home base of Chef Anthony Marinuzzi. And while all Italian food tends to be unpretentious and homey, Mistura has a very different vibe – leather chairs, dark wood, and a lovely gal at the door to take our coats all work to make this restaurant featuring northern Italian cuisine a bit more upscale. There’s something old school and classy about the place – it might be the down-tempo 60s classics playing on the sound system, but Mistura is the kind of place where you’d almost expect to find Sinatra and Ava Gardner having a big plate of Mistura’s famous fettuccine Bolognese in a quiet booth at the back.
Mistura is also featuring many seasonal DOP items on their Italian Seasons menu – prosciutto di Parma, fresh figs, tomatoes and Bufala Mozzarella are all accounted for. Capra’s take on the basic mozzarella and tomatoes includes gorgeous roasted tomatoes, as well as local heirloom varieties and cherry tomatoes poached in olive oil.
And there’s a reason why the Bolognese sauce is so famous (the menu claims it made Pavarotti sing for more) – it’s damned good.
The Branzino, sea bass fillets with roasted fennel and black olive pesto is a really beautiful dish, the sea bass (the menu doesn’t specify which kind it is) is rich and oily, and reminds us almost of mackerel. It’s nicely paired with the light licorice flavour of the fennel.
A roasted young duck has almost an Asian flavour to the spicy glaze, and is served with caramelized root vegetables and sweet and sour cabbage. The duck is velvety and moist under a sweet crispy skin. We’re also intrigued by a scattering of what appears to be sweet pickled fruits, known as Mostarda di Cremona. Chef Capra hails from Cremona, just outside of Milan and these pickled fruits – made with sugar and mustard and vinegar – are considered a delicacy in the region. Restaurant manager Julian Gova tells us that Capra brings them in special for use in the restaurant.
For dessert, we try the crostata di pinola, a pine nut tart with honey crème anglaise, said to be food writer James Chatto’s favourite dessert in the whole city. And with good reason – laden with poached pine nuts, the dessert is only slightly sweet from the short crust, and is gorgeously presented.
We also try the warm soft centre chocolate torte filled with espresso and white chocolate cream, a perfect foil to the pinenut tart with its oozing molten centre.
It’s obvious that what we know of Italian cuisine is just scratching the surface when it comes to the regional specialties and variations on ingredients. From the Italian “soul food” of 7 Numbers, to the still rustic but upscale Mistura and everything in between, the Italian Seasons Festival allows Torontonians to try Italian food as it was meant to be – with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients and a spotlight on the various dishes that make each region distinct.
For more information on the Italian Seasons Festival, as well as menus for the participating restaurants, please visit their website