Tis the Season at Il Fornello

ilfornellofigIl Fornello
491 Church Street (and others)
Complete dinner for two with all taxes, tip and beer: $90

I’ll be honest up front and admit that I haven’t actually been to an Il Fornello restaurant in over ten years. I had a super terrible service issue at the King Street location some years ago that made me never want to go back. But when we heard that Il Fornello’s chef Owen Steinberg had created a changing seasonal menu based on local ingredients in addition to the existing menu, I was happy to set aside my reservations and give the place another go after so long.

We opted for the Church Street location because it’s known to be the most attractive, and that’s definitely the case. The space is long and linear with clean, sleek lines. Tables are still traditionally dressed in white linen, but the room has a modern feel that is not the norm for your typical pizza and pasta place. I especially liked the co-ed style washrooms with individual stalls and a shared trough-style sink – very risqué for stuffy old Toronto.

ilfornellotroutWe were joined by our friend Rik for our annual Canada Day dinner (none of us are sure how it came about but we seem to unintentionally end up meeting for dinner on Canada Day every year). The seasonal menu bore no resemblance to which had been publicized when Il Fornello announced their plan to include seasonal dishes, indicating that Chef Steinberg was staying true to his word and was already changing the dishes regularly.

The additional seasonal menu contained three appetizers, three mains and one dessert. Unfortunately none of the mains were vegetarian, and only one of the apps was meat-free, leaving vegetarian Rik to order off the regular menu.

ilfornellosoupThe husband ordered the baked goat cheese and smoked trout ($9.25), the Woolwich dairy cheese was encrusted in spelt and paired with a lightly smoked trout for an outstanding flavour combination. This was a generous portion of fish, that could have doubled as a main. Rik chose the Duet of Crostini ($7.95) from the regular menu, and received four lovely rounds topped with either wild mushroom and asiago or sun-dried tomato and goat cheese. I opted for the Chilled Sweet Potato Soup ($5.25) from the seasonal menu. This was the only item that was a miss for me. The chilled sweet potato puree was garnished with basil essence and sheep’s yogurt, which fought too much with the sweetness of the potato and over-powered it. Eventually all I could taste was the basil, and I couldn’t finish this.

For entrees, the husband ordered the pizza from the seasonal menu ($11.50), topped with tomato sauce, two-year-old white cheddar, organic pepperoni, hydroponic bell peppers and fresh organic basil. This was delicious, but quite greasy from the fat of the cheese, and the local pepperoni from Beretta Meats was mild and complimented the rest of the ingredients well.

I had planned on sticking to vegetarian dishes for the evening, but the lure of the Fig Pizza ($14.65) was too much to bear. Honey figs were paired with prosciutto, marscapone, lemon-drizzled arugula and shaved grano padano for one of the most exciting flavour combinations I’ve ever tasted. The sweetness of the figs paired with the slightly salty ham and the tang of cheese has had me craving another of these beauties pretty much every day since my visit. (I might need one right now, in fact!) Rik went with the ravioli ($14.95), a spinach pasta enveloping butternut squash and garnished with caramelized shallots and sliced chestnuts.

ilfornelloshortcakeFor dessert Rik had the Molten Chocolate Cake ($6.25), a luscious round of pastry that encompassed the promised molten centre and tasted of pure chocolate. The husband had the Raspberry Tartufo ($4.95), which he said was light and flavourful, but looked to me just like the ones available at the grocery store. I chose the Strawberry Shortcake ($5.95) from the seasonal menu. This was a stack of light but sturdy shortcake, mounds of whipped cream and fresh berries in a sauce laced with mint. I’d have liked a few more berries in this dish, to tell the truth, as it was mostly cake and cream, and the berries that were there were verging on mushy from macerating in sauce all day, but the flavour was very bright.

Service throughout the evening was attentive, although somewhat rough. The soup was slopped onto the edges of the bowl as it was being served, plates were grabbed rather than subtly removed. The husband’s Creemore beer ($4.95) came with a chilled glass and there was some confusion when he asked for a non-chilled glass that wouldn’t dull the taste of his beverage.

So Il Fornello is not anywhere near as terrible as I remember it being, and I’m sorry it took me so long to return. The food definitely won me over and their dedication to offering seasonal and local menu items is to be commended, especially for a chain where the logistics are very different from an independent restaurant.

Equally impressive was the list of local suppliers Il Fornello had teamed with, as they were able to source not just the meat, cheese and produce, but local flours, oils, vinegars, herbs and wine. It appears as if the plan is to continue with the seasonal menu year-round, so things could get very interesting once the cold weather hits. And if not, there’s always the fig pizza.