Stop Walking Past and Come on In

1185 King Street West
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip, wine and coffee: $110

I’ve walked past Caffino a hundred times – literally – without ever going in. When I worked in Liberty Village I would consider grabbing my morning coffee from there, but the Roastery was closer to work and on cold winter mornings, travel time really did count.

Even living 5 minutes away wasn’t compelling enough, especially when hot new places started popping up nearby. Their website didn’t help – the menu page never worked at all and the only thing I could find was a list of celebrities who had eaten there, which is more of a reason to stay away than make a beeline for the place in my book. (Their current website is no better –  it’s just a splash page with a note about it re-launching in December ’08.)

And when I finally ended up there it was only by a fluke; we were headed somewhere else and were incredibly hungry, so we made a detour figuring it would be faster than going across town.

So how truly foolish am I for having this hidden gem right around the corner from me and it taking a good ten years or so to finally get in there? Pretty silly, it would seem, because Caffino turns out some really decent classic Italian fare.

The bulk of the restaurant’s business seems to be at breakfast and lunch, catering to the Liberty Village crowd who know to head through the wrought iron gate and down the laneway for morning pastries and espresso or pizza and panini at lunch.

The huge, high-ceilinged space is made up of two rooms (one decorated in a more classic style with high windows and sheer curtains, and a bar area with a mix of funky kitchenette sets and cool chairs) and two large patios. A couple of birthday parties take over the dining room on one of our visits but for the most part, the place is sparsely filled on weekend evenings.

Which is too bad, because this stretch of King at Dufferin has a dearth of decent restaurants, and if the locals knew there was such fabulous pizza and pasta available, they’d overrun the place.

Apps lean heavily on the salad side, but the grilled calamari ($14) is not to be missed. Served atop a bed of baby greens dressed with a honey balsamic vinaigrette and a salsa made with caramelized onions and tomatoes, this is one beautifully cooked creature of the sea. Marinated before it is grilled, the calamari, so easy to cook poorly, is sweet and tender, the ends of the tentacles crispy instead of the expected rubbery. Beautiful.

A soup special of honeydew melon topped with peach and berry compote ($7) is cool and refreshing although we’d prefer to see it in August when the melons are in season locally. Beef carpaccio ($15) is oddly sweet with a drizzle of lemon oil, but it works.

The menu also reveals a sense of humour – entrées are named after Italian fashion designers to create dishes such as veal Valentino ($20), salmone Armani ($21) or lamb alla Fendi ($22), all served with simple and unpretentious potatoes and veggies on the side.

We’re mostly sticking with the pizzas though. On a first visit, the Gemma ($15), shows up with a thin, crispy crust that would seriously put any of the city’s big names to the test, and a topping of tomato sauce, mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto and parmigiano with a drizzle of olive oil. This is my go-to flavour combination whenever I order a “fancy” pizza but I’ve never had it where the prosciutto has been added before the pizza was fired. That’s a terrible thing to do to a piece of gorgeous prosciutto, and the stank of the cooked meat makes an otherwise perfect pizza less so.

On another visit we try the Sofia ($14) which is tomato sauce, blue cheese, sausage, mozzarella and red peppers, and the Antoinetta ($14) with goat cheese, spinach, grilled chicken, fresh tomatoes and pesto. The Antoinetta (named after one of the owner’s family members, we’re told) beats out Sofia (named after Sofia Loren) only because after the first few slices, Sofia’s blue cheese becomes overpowering.

As for the non-pizza selections, the penne arabbiata ($12) is pleasing with a nice jalapeno kick, while risotto alla Napoletana ($14) offers a really great flavour combination of bocconcini, tomatoes and garlic with pesto, but would maybe work better as a pasta, as the quickly melting cheese makes the whole dish weirdly gooey.

A small dessert list is about half made in-house and half brought in. The housemade tiramisu ($8) is a well-done version of the classic dish but it’s not my favourite dessert (from anywhere) because it can be soggy. I opt for the crème brulee ($8), another classic that is well-executed but which nobody here is making any attempt to jazz up with fancy flavours such as pumpkin or chai. This is probably for the best; it’s fine just as it is. Teeny cannoli (one of the items not made in house) are decent and surprisingly not soggy even though they’ve been prefilled.

As one would expect with a place called Caffino, the coffee lives up to the name, and when we get caught comparing crema on our Americanos, our server replaces the one that is lacking. Service on both occasions is attentive and friendly – they remember us and greet us like old regulars on our second visit, and are very pleased that we have brought friends with us.

The music is the only thing we’d change about the overall ambiance – the Sirius digital radio channel they’re tuned to pumps out a mix of soft rock and “inoffensive” (note the quotation marks – I really don’t need to hear Celine Dion when I’m trying to eat) top 40 hits. With the décor and classic menu, I’d love to see Caffino try some mid 20th century pop and jazz; some of their paninis at lunchtime are named after Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.; there’s no reason those guys, along with some Louis Prima, or even some classical music – the room can stand up to it – wouldn’t work. Cher and Air Supply are just distracting.

Okay, so the place isn’t perfect, but in a way that adds to its charm. It feels homey and comfortable; the kind of place where they’ll welcome you back and forgive you for walking past a hundred times because you’re there now, and that’s all that matters.