The Charms of Buca

602 King Street West
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and wine: $150

The recession might have played a role, but Toronto seems especially caught up in the idea of rustic food. We’re uninterested in molecular gastronomy and sundaes sprinkled with gold leaf; we crave real authentic food like (someone’s) Mama used to make.

In the world of Italian food, the leader of this pack has long been Terroni, where Cosimo Mammoliti built his business on food so authentic he wouldn’t allow changes or substitutions. When Pizza Libretto opened last year, some thought (and still do) that the pizza there was better (I’m still trying to get over the soggy centres on the two pizzas I had there) but both now have some serious competition from Buca.

Hidden down a lane way at King and Portland, this large basement space has been the hottest new restaurant in the city for the past few weeks. Even getting a reservation can be a challenge. The restaurant is comprised of two rooms; one large, with high ceilings and exposed brick; the other down a hallway, past a window showing off racks of salumi (created in house by Chef Rob Gentile), and slightly more cozy with a few large communal tables and a bar area.

Service starts off strong and remains so throughout the meal. Coats are taken, water glasses filled and friendly servers are happy to explain the extensive menu which changes daily.

Our complaints of Buca are small, and almost trivial – the menu is almost too big to navigate successfully; with 8 pizzas, 7 pastas, 3 meats, 3 fish, salumi plates, cheese plates, starters, side dishes and salads, we’re vaguely overwhelmed. The fact that the room is so dark we can barely read the menu (or take decent photos… sorry folks) also loses them some points. I don’t need donut shop fluorescent, but I’m kind of over candlelit ambience if it means I can’t read a menu or see the face of the person sitting across from me.

We start with a variety of small plates and appetizers. Nodini ($6) are little knots of fried bread with olive oil, rosemary, garlic and sea salt that we devour, wiping up the last bits of savoury oil with the warm knots. These might have been my favourite dish of the evening. With them we have olive all’ascolana ($5), fried olives stuffed with sausage; crisp and warm, and surprisingly not greasy.

The day’s carpaccio di cervo ($17) is, on the night of our visit, made with venison instead of beef. Topped with grappa-soaked Saskatoon berries, cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds and black truffles, the last of which were either omitted or got scoffed by my dining companions, because I’d have swooned more if there had been truffles. Having grown up eating wild game, particularly venison, I tend to be disappointed by the mild flavour of the farmed stuff served in restaurants and this was no different. A nice, well-balanced dish, but I’d have preferred a stronger flavour to the meat.

We also share a cheese plate ($17 for 3, with seasonal preserves). These change daily, like most items on Buca’s menu, but of particular note was the parmigiano reggiano vacche rosse; tangy, slightly crumbly and sharp with the accompanying preserved pears.

We’d heard rave reviews of the tagliatelle ($18), a duck egg pasta with duck ragu, mascarpone and basil, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a rich hearty dish, with bits of sweet duck throughout.

Our adventurous Brazilian friend goes for the fresh water eel ($28) with house-dried grapes, caramelized onions and toasted pine nuts. It’s not a super-exciting dish visually, but the sweet meat pairs wonderfully with the garnishes for a nice flavour balance. Her one complaint – the eel skin is tough to cut with a standard dinner knife, and Buca doesn’t have any steak knives, so she struggles slightly with the fish.

And because I’m a pretty die-hard Terroni fan, I order up the pizza that most closely resembles my beloved ciccio pizza. The prosciutto e bufala ($20) is a long rectangular pie with hefty portions of San Daniele prosciutto, preserved tomato, bufala mozzarella and basil. Like Terroni, it arrives unsliced. But this pizza is accompanied by paper scissors so we can cut the pie into slices. And paper is the right word, because the gloriously thin crust really is paper thin – we even hold it up to the candlelight at one point and can vaguely see through it. The scissors make it all the more fun and I delightedly cut shapes for my dining companions.

At some point during the evening we’ve determined we’ve all had a crappy day and use this to justify ordering all four (!!) desserts on the menu ($10 each). Our sweet Brazilian friend insists we can eat it all (she’s the one who drags us out to those “all the meat you can eat” Brazilian restaurants where they come around with meat on a big skewer), but the general consensus of the evening is that Italian desserts are kind of bland. The cannoli are filled with a chocolate cream and are okay, but not outstanding. They are redeemed by the bergamot custard, but I’m the only one at the table who thinks so, the others find it too strong.

The torta, a yogurt cake with caramelized apples, crushed amaretti, moscato zabaglione and candied basil is mostly overlooked with the exception of the candied basil which we rave over. The crostatini is an almond tart with Ontario buffalo ricotta and poached pear, and, oh look, another cream based sauce. The winner turns out to be the one we weren’t all that interested in ordering to begin with: the baba, lemon rum soaked cookies served in a wide-mouthed mason jar, with more cream (this time a Frangelico zabaglione) poured over top and then garnished with hazelnuts. This one scored in both flavour and presentation.

By the time we’re ready to leave, the place is packed despite the downpour outside. Buca has the right combination of funky rustic atmosphere and formality, with enough dishes to keep even large groups happy. The pizza is the most memorable, and while I can’t bring myself to admit that it’s better than Terroni, it’s certainly neck and neck. The menu could use a bit of trimming, and the lights could be turned up a notch, but Gentile and co-owner Peter Tsebelis seem to have a winner on their hands.