The Gist: As many have noticed, Neapolitan style pizza is ubiquitous from east to west and north to south in the United States while Canada is no exception, particularly in Toronto, where opinions vary from palate to palate as to what is best but many agree that Libretto is at least in the discussion.
The Why: Having already enjoyed a great Dim Sum breakfast at Yang’s while my mother and aunt took the opportunity to sleep in the Danforth location of Libretto would prove an ideal brunch prior to our drive from Toronto to Ottawa. With a diverse menu featuring pizzas, pastas, antipasti, and desserts Libretto additionally features options for both the traditionalist and the more adventurous thus making it a safe choice for everyone involved.
The Reservation: Accepted but not required, we were fortunate to secure the only open four-top mere minutes after entering the restaurant at 11:30am, after which a wait list was established with patrons waiting anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes for a seat.
The Space: Long, narrow, and industrial with painted brick walls dominating the left and right while a bar resided and the front and dual tile pizza ovens stood prominently at the open kitchen in back. With the room full and many folks either drinking or coming in for some brunch after a long night of doing so the restaurant was invariably loud and seating tight, though less so than similar pizzerias stateside (Mozza, Keste, and the original Uno come to mind.)
The Service: Given the substantial amount of business Libretto was turning during brunch I don’t think it would have been unreasonable to have a couple extra servers on hand, but all things being equal the only substantial delay was in placing our order, a twenty minute process, after which drinks remained full and all dishes arrived at 10-15 minute intervals piping hot from the kitchen.
The Food: Coffee, Bread Service, 1 Antipasta, 1 Pasta, 2 Pizzas, 3 Desserts.
Coffee: A bold Americano with a rich texture and good flavor highlighted by caramel and fig notes. Probably not the ideal pairing with pizza, but with a long drive ahead a more than adequate caffeine source, particularly when it came time for dessert.
Focaccia and Italian White with Olive Oil and Balsamic: Present on the table mere minutes after we took our seats and still warm, presumably from the pizza oven, I personally preferred the semolina based white to the somewhat doughy focaccia which likely could have used a bit less olive oil in the dough itself (or at least a few more minutes in the oven.) Unable to separate the olive oil from the balsamic I cannot comment on the quality of either, but the blend was rather standard and unremarkable.
Crostini – avocado-bufala ricotta, speck & arugula, confit tomato: Detailed as crostini secondary to the use of toasted bread this presentation was more akin to bruscetta in texture as the bread still had a pleasant chew while the toppings sat in an ample, rustic balance of crunchy/smooth and salty/sweet with the slight funk of the ricotta and brine of the speck both coming through with aplomb.
Potato & Ricotta Gnocchi – butternut squash, pancetta, pine nuts, pickled pearl onions & arugula: Realizing it is always touch-and-go with pasta at a restaurant fancying itself a pizzeria I will simply note that if gnocchi is on a menu I almost invariably order it and in the case of Libretto this choice would prove most fortunate as the dish was the best savory of the meal. Beginning first with the dumplings – creamy to the point of literally melting in the mouth – and moving next to the deft juxtaposition of thick-cut savory pork, lightly acidic onions, and bitter sautéed arugula the dish was hefty but fresh and bucolic but balanced – a dish rooted in winter but looking forward to spring with flavors befitting both.
Duck Confit with Bosc pear, mozzarella, rosemary: The first of two pizzas and certainly the less traditional of the pair this pizza came with high expectations that were only half fulfilled. Starting with the crust, a slightly sweet and well leavened specimen with a bit of blister but plenty of chew I’d personally put Libretto’s crusts in the upper quartile of the Neapolitan pies I’ve experienced in North America and without tomato or “wet” ingredients on this particular pizza the dough held up nicely to the ingredients both at the edge and the center. Moving next to the toppings, where this pie fell flat was actually in the pears – almost entirely flavorless and still crisp leading to an odd mouth-feel, particularly next to the intensely creamy cheese and supple, flavorful confit.
Ontario Prosciutto – tomato, basil, mozzarella: A vastly more successful pie to the duck, though not without flaws. Featuring a similar crust to the duck pizza, but with even more blistering and rise to the crust this Margherita was lightly graced with a sauce of milled tomato and supple prosciutto, both delicious and well balanced by creamy pools of mozzarella. Where the dish lacked, unfortunately, was in the basil which seemed to be added haphazardly prior to cooking leading to some bites with a disconcerting amount of charred vegetal flavor while others lacked any herbal nuance at all.
Libretto Tiramisu: Served in a mason jar, dusted with unsweetened cocoa, and a lovely balance of buttery cake soaked with espresso and a bit of rum juxtaposed with slightly sweet mascarpone. A well composed classic not suffering from pooling of the alcohol as so many other preparations do this was a great dessert – yet despite this fact, the least wowing of the three.
Posset al Limone – chamomile granite, citrus & meringue: Obviously my mother’s selection given her propensity for lemon desserts this light and creamy presentation would prove to be a bit more panna cotta than posset, but leaving semantics aside it would also prove to be excellent. Featuring a base of cream, lemon liquor, and gelatin topped with icy floral notes, crunchy bites of meringue, and fresh slices of grapefruit, mandarin, and Meyer lemon the experience was complex and refreshing with a compelling mix of textures, flavors, and temperatures far exceeding the standard watery posset.
Chocolate-Amaretto Budino – Hazelnuts: Bread Pudding, Baba, and Budino – perhaps I just have a propensity for desserts beginning with the letter “B” but if any (or all) of these are on a menu there is a very good chance one (or all) will find their way to my table and in the case of Pizzeria Libretto there was a budino done right – no “cake” or gimmicks, just thick chocolate pudding imbued with notes of fruit and nuts plus an ample dusting of crushed candied hazelnuts adding both texture and sweetness. Served, like the tiramisu, in a mason jar this was rustic and rich – just the way it should be.
The Verdict: A hit and miss experience where the specialty (pizza) was outshined by the supporting staff (antipasti, pasta, and desserts) I cannot say I would rush back to Libretto for the pizza, but with a good location, good service, and excellent versions of two of my favorite foods – gnocchi and budino – I certainly wouldn’t scoff at a return visit if I lived in the area, particularly as the pizza crusts show promise that if ingredient sourcing and handling were better they too could shine.