The Gist: With reviews from chefs, ‘foodies,’ and the media all largely positive despite a website that leaves the menu shrouded in secrecy and a location that is not exactly easy to find Rob Gentile’s Buca Enoteca has quickly ascended to the top of many “Best Of” lists in both Toronto and Canada as a whole. Located in the King West area, Buca promises to deliver a little bit of Italian authenticity to the Greater Toronto Area with a menu that changes from day to day while focusing on rustic preparations utilizing only the freshest ingredients.
The Why: If the facts above weren’t enough, a mention from the staff at Cascina Spinasse in Seattle during a December 2011 meal certainly did not hurt. Combine this with convenient lunch hours, a menu that occasionally delves into offal and off cuts, and the fact that we had been feasting on hefty French food in Montreal and Ottawa for the previous week and Buca became a must-visit on the tail end of our trek through Eastern Canada.
The Reservation: Apparently one of the most difficult reservations in the city for dinner, a Friday afternoon reservation was easily obtained via Opentable with only a week’s notice and arriving shortly after the restaurant opened its doors we were the only diners in the restaurant for the first thirty minutes before the place began to fill with the daily lunch crowd of businessmen in dark suits.
The Space: Once you find the restaurant – a somewhat tricky proposition as the door itself is behind a curtain and the curtain is a short walk from a wrought iron gate – I have to say I really liked the space. Featuring high ceilings, exposed brick, and a slick rigid lighting structure with bulbs at 90 degree angles hanging far above the dark wood and leather tables and chairs the true action of the room is the open kitchen and salumeria, the former bustling with activity even as we were the only table filled and the later packed with various house cured meats hanging from the ceiling.
The Service: Taking into account the fact that we were the only table occupied for the majority of our meal the service was expectedly attentive, dishes were served with thorough descriptions immediately as they were finished in the kitchen, and when one of our dishes apparently did not meet Chef Gentile’s approval at the pass it was returned to the kitchen before it even made it to our server’s hand.
The Food: 1 appetizer (though we ordered two, they were apparently out of Lardo for the Gnocco Fritto,) 1 pizza, 3 pastas, 2 desserts, and a take home gift.
Nodini – Warm Bread knots with olive oil, rosemary, garlic, sea salt: Much has been made of Buca’s choice to charge for their bread service and with the Nodini perhaps the most talked about item given its persistence on the ever changing menu it seemed like an obvious choice…perhaps too obvious. With the small knots served golden, hot, and nicely kissed with seasoning and salt each of these little bites were good, but at the same time like all ‘simple’ items delivered with substantial hype I guess I just expected more. Sure it was good, but at $4 I’ve certainly had better bread served complementary at both lesser and greater restaurants.
Scamorza Pizza with house cured fennel pork salumi, radicchio, chili, local smoked buffalo milk cheese: Featuring oblong Roman-style pizzas served un-cut on large wooden cheeseboards alongside a pair of shears, this $17 pie would certainly prove a step up from the nodini and with ample amounts of aromatic salumi, bitter radicchio, slightly acidic tomato sauce, and creamy cheese this was a case where the whole was not only as good as the sum of its parts, but better. With the crust minimally charred and slightly floppy plus each ingredient fresh and flavorful this was the sort of pizza worth going out for and given the lightness of the crust it proved an excellent appetizer for three (and would have likely proven a formidable main course for one.)
Spaghetti Alla Carbonara with bronze die cut gragnano di napoli pasta with house made guanciale, pecorino, black pepper tossed tableside with farm hen’s egg: Dining with two of the least adventurous people I know the pastas at Buca would prove a bit of a challenge as none were boring in the least, but after a more than a week of great eating I was given carte blanche to order something I thought they would like and we started with a rather traditional carbonara featuring salty pork and an ample shake of both pecorino and pepper with the egg added and mixed tableside while the pasta was still steaming. With the noodles thick and springy and each ingredient melded into silky smooth sauce this was simplicity done right.
Fusilli Al Ferretto with fresh hand rolled fusilli with fennel soffritto, green tomato and golden delicious apple sauce, spot prawns, toasted focaccia: Obviously more adventurous than the spaghetti this large pile of fusilli would prove to be the savory of the afternoon and also one of the most impressive pastas thus far in 2012. With each wide noodle prepared to just past al dente and the prawns still snappy it was in the juxtaposition of apple and tomato, fructose versus acid, and the manner in which the aromatic slick of olive oil infused with fennel and garlic that truly made this dish ‘pop.’ Uncertain as to how the family would react to such a non-traditional dish I was admittedly surprised when both my mother and aunt seemed equally as wowed as I…to the point where my mother even commented on how much she liked the use of the tiny croutons for texture.
Bigoli hand cranked duck egg pasta with duck ragu, mascarpone, basil: Perhaps the restaurant’s most talked about pasta (and another menu staple,) I ordered this pasta for myself with hopes that the ladies would give it a try but more than willing to eat the whole thing if they did not. Ignoring the “duck egg” pasta as I find it hard to believe anyone could differentiate they type of egg used in noodles, I will note that the pasta itself was substantially different in texture from the flour/semolina based dishes that proceeded it and with the noodles less absorbent the use of creamy mascarpone mixed with the rich duck ragu worked brilliantly to make the sauce adherent. A bit ‘funky’ without being gamey and rife with the flavor of duck confit tucked beneath ripe tomatoes I’m happy to say that while not quite as impressive as the Fusilli I definitely understand this dish’s fanfare and would also place it amongst the best pastas of the year thus far (baring in mind this review is being written in July.)
Tiramisu di Buca with espresso soaked house made tapioca biscuits layered with mascarpone and chocolate mousse: At $12 I expected this to be one hell of a tiramisu and…well…it was. Having never heard of “tapioca biscuits” before we were informed that this was a gluten-free recipe utilizing tapioca flour, eggs, and butter to build a fluffy base that was subsequently saturated with espresso prior to being topped with mascarpone, tapioca pudding, chocolate mousse, and finally a crispy chocolate tuille. Crunchy and creamy, sweetness balanced by bitter – it was a great take on a classic with the tapioca pearls adding another layer of intrigue while the only thing missing, maybe, was a splash of rum.
Risotto Originario with sweet risotto of heirloom Calabrian rice finished with buffalo milk, chianti poached plum, Quebec Flora Honey, Amaretti, Candied Clover: They had me at “risotto” on a dessert menu and although it was nearly as expensive as one of the pastas ($14) it was worth every penny… toothsome but creamy, sweet but funky…it was perfect, and in this case a picture truly is worth a thousand words as it was the best dessert I had in all of Canada.
Italian Torrone: These were provided as a take-away gift at the end of the meal and while I found them to be more “biscotti” than the sticky texture of torrone, as they were described, it was a nice gesture and the pronounced almond flavor was quite excellent.
The Verdict: While some have complained that Buca is expensive (both the food and the all Italian wine list) and I certainly do not disagree with this claim as our lunch (without any of the aforementioned wine but including tax and tip) came out to nearly $45/pp, I can only say that for my tastes it was worth almost every penny. High on quality, big on flavor, and rustic without sacrificing precision I’ve been to very few places executing Italian food on the level of Gentile and his team and nearly all of them have either been helmed by men named Vetri, White, Benno, or Batali.