Local Kitchen and Winebar – Like Nonna’s House but with Better Music

Local Kitchen and Wine Bar
1710 Queen Street West

Remember how in high school, there was always one guy whose house you’d all flock to? The kid with the cool basement rec room, and the Mom who always made everyone snacks, and who didn’t mind if you were there until three in the morning listening to Floyd, or The Sex Pistols, or Nirvana (depending on your particular era). It maybe wasn’t the slickest place, maybe the furniture didn’t match, or the walls were covered in peeling rock posters, but it was so comfortable, and so welcoming, that it’s where you naturally gravitated every day.

Fabio Bondi and Michael Sangregorio are (collectively) those guys, and their new restaurant, Local Kitchen and Wine Bar, is the hip grown-up equivalent to the basement rec room. It might be the collection of old news articles and photos of the neighbourhood on the walls, the handmade bar, or the mismatched chairs. It might also be that Sangregorio, who runs the front of house, is the modern equivalent of your friend’s Mom, proffering samples from the restaurant’s piattini (small plates) menu, and encouraging regulars to flip through the boxes of vinyl records by the kitchen door to spin on the restaurant’s turntable-based sound system. This is the only restaurant in town where you could actually hear someone ask, “Mike, man, let’s hear some Zeppelin…” and actually have it happen.

The guys laugh when I make this observation, pointing out that Bondi was that guy in high school, and family events and gatherings still have a tendency to take place in his Mom’s back yard.

That comfort and familiarity can be found throughout the Parkdale restaurant. A clothesline, an homage to the ones that hung in their parents’ backyards, decorates one wall, the pair built the tables and the bar, and did much of the reno work on the former antique shop themselves.

“Every square inch represents a piece of us, and from our childhood, too,” remarks Sangregorio, gesturing to the crates where they store wine. “The wine crates are pop crates from a place that used to deliver pop when we were kids. And we found them in our parent’s cellar, they used to store wine in them.”

A few crates are actually all that is needed for Local Kitchen’s wine selection, which is small and precise, and features wines that are local (Ontario), almost local (British Columbia) and “our parents’ local” (Southern Italy).

“It is small because the place is small, and we are starting off without a huge wine budget,” explains Sangregorio, pointing out that the pair have funded everything themselves with no financial backers. But they are looking into bio-dynamic wines, and expect to see the list grow with input from customers.

“We got flack from a customer asking ‘why all Ontario whites?’ Ontario whites are the best in the world,” Sangregorio enthuses. “We have awesome wines here [in Ontario], and we’d like to start that education process.” Plans are in the works to bring in Ontario winemakers and host winemakers’ dinners on a regular basis.

With Sangregorio running the front of house, Bondi takes care of the kitchen. Having worked at Michelin-starred Il Posto in Umbria Italy, paired with the Italian backgrounds of both co-owners, it’s easy to see why Italian was the cuisine of choice for Local Kitchen’s offerings.

The menu is a well thought out selection of local, seasonal Italian food, complemented by the piattini, which changes regularly but can include cheese, olives, and meats. On a recent visit, olives stuffed with rabbit meat had been breaded and deep-fried for a startling delight of sweetness and brine.

The guys work with a variety of local producers who supply them with sustainable, ethically-raised meat, which matches their overall philosophy towards food. “The pork farmer we deal with – you’ve gotta see how these pigs live,” Bondi tells me enthusiastically of the cushy accommodations the pigs live in.

There are plans for the menu to change with the seasons, but Bondi also wants to keep some staples on the menu as well. The garganelli with Ontario tomatoes will remain for as long as they have the fruit, and the pair recently canned 15 bushels of Ontario tomatoes, the jars adorning shelves along the walls, interspersed with jars of eggplant from Bondi’s mother.

“A tomato needs to taste like a tomato,” Sangregorio says. “And if it’s wintertime and you don’t have access to them – don’t eat them. In Italy, the way my parents grew up, they would stuff themselves with tomatoes, and when they’re not there, they go away. And that’s a healthy way to eat – you eat what’s in season and when it’s not in season you eat something else.”

“We’re not pretending to be people that we’re not; this is who we are,” he continues. “If we don’t have access to it, we wont put it on the menu. I’m sure we’ll be challenged in the winter months, but it’s trial and error. And I’m sure next year, we’ll know that we ran out of something and will make more.”

“We’ll make this an event; now that we have staff, we’ll do that with our staff,” says Sangregorio of the arduous sauce-making process. “New staff will have to do 3-hour shifts in the kitchen because you need to see how a dish is assembled – how are you going to go to the front, how can you sell something and explain things to your customers, if you don’t have an understanding of where things come from and how things are put together?”

The menu shouldn’t be too hard to learn if staff keep the principles of fresh, local and sustainable in mind. Salads feature local tomatoes, Niagara peaches, Ontario buffalo mozzarella. A pasta dish (conveniently offered in two sizes) sees tortelli stuffed with local rabbit and topped with briny Sicilian olives. The arctic char is occasionally replaced with different fish, based on availability and freshness. Desserts are light, like plates of cookies, made by a friend who runs a pastry shop, or, occasionally, Bondi’s Mom. And the salumi tasting, if the meal I had at a pre-opening winemaker’s dinner is any indication, is a mind-blowing selection of meats that could make even the most hardened carnivore cry ‘Uncle’.

Bondi and Sangregorio want their customers to think of their restaurant as a true “local”. A place that embraces community; learns from it and grows with it, and where people are comfortable stopping by for everything from drinks and nibbles to a three or four course meal.

When I ask them what impression they’d like their guests to take away with them, both men say “comfortable, welcoming and unpretentious”. Which is pretty much what Local Kitchen and Wine Bar really is. It’s that guy’s house, with the good food, and the cool rec room, where you’re always welcome and you always feel at home. And where the guy at the salumi bar will arrange your cheese plate and then go find that Zeppelin album and drop the needle onto the vinyl while the room collectively rocks out.