A Tale of Two Palates: Sara Waxman and Adam Waxman dine-out in Toronto’s restaurant scene and share their views.
Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re in Italy. If we ever needed a reminder of what is truly Italian along College Street in Little Italy, this is it: Marinella Simply Italian.
SW: People come in and have dinner at the bar. They’re regulars and they’re known here. The mark of a good restaurant is the customers that come back. We’re seated along a comfortable banquet between natural brick walls and natural light. I think this was once built between two buildings, because they look like outside walls.
AW: When I imagine “Little Italy”, this is what I hope for. It’s a family business with Marinella and her son Pino in the kitchen, while her son John takes care of the front of house. They also really pride themselves on making as much as possible in house, and leaving very little footprint.
SW: All their pasta is hand made in house with only three ingredients: “Semolina, eggs and love”. They make fresh bread every day. They make their own sausages in house, their own charcuterie, and, until recently, their own cheese. Now they source cheese directly from Italy. “I’m not a great chef.” Marinella tells us. “I’m a mother who loves to cook.” John recommends his mother’s chicken soup. This soup was made with chickens not with a bouillon cube. It tastes like there’s homemade noodles in here too, and a little carrot and some shredded chicken. It’s just what I needed.
AW: Who would think an Italian could make chicken soup for my Jewish Mom—and that you’d love it. It’s got that therapeutic essence that only comes from authenticity. Even though I can feel your look, I like it more with a sprinkling of Grana Padano. Now it’s a stracciatella.
SW: The Caprese is beautiful. Vibrant colour. Thickly cut ripe tomatoes and golden beets from California, sweet fresh basil and a lush Fior di Latte Mozzarella from Italy. The crostini is herbed and adds its own texture and flavour. It’s surprising how well the Fior di Latte goes with the roasted pickled beets. The beets are like candy—sweet with a bit of a punch. The olive oil and balsamic reduction is what really makes this “Simply Italian.”
AW: The charcuterie is all from naturally raised hormone-free meats. A board of Roman salami cured with wine and garlic is light and delicate and begs for a glass of wine. The Soppressata is Calabrese, “Like us,” says John. “My grandfather taught us his red pepper sauce that’s in there. This is what we’re known for.” There is a subtle heat—not overpowering—that leaps out. The Capicollo is cured in house for six months and the Prosciutto is cured in house for eighteen months. Neither taste salty. They are just delicate and reflect the finesse and personal touch of this family. My favourite is the Salamette Calabrese sausage with an understated hint of fennel. Each morsel is light, fresh and flavourful.
SW: The Shrimp Marinella is just delicious. Plump and firm. The sauce is lovely. It’s not the kind of sauce you would expect. Very rich flavour, but subtle and light. I want to scoop it all up with the crostini.
AW: We tend to take meatballs for granted, but these meatballs are a reminder of how they’re supposed to be. Very balanced and yet light, almost airy; and the sauce is so rich but not tart. The San Marzano Stanislov tomatoes from California make all the difference. Beautiful vibrant red, and a boldness that comes with freshness.
SW: The homemade ziti pasta with lamb sausage has only five ingredients: lamb, fresh cracked pepper, rapini, olive oil and garlic gently tossed into the pasta. Everything is simple and beautiful. The lamb is grass-fed and the sausages were just made five hours ago. It takes confidence and years of hard work to be able to make something so simple and so delicious. We trust this kitchen and it’s ingredients. We trust that we could order anything off this menu and enjoy it heartily. This is how we feel when we enjoy a bowl of fresh pasta in Italy.
AW: John keeps telling us to “save some room”, but how can I not eat everything. The hallmark of fresh quality ingredients is that we don’t feel like we’ve eaten too much. The service is so attentive and sophisticated. Our waiter brings an extra fork on a plate, and presents it with a flourish. He knows that the dinner is about us and not about him. He’s the kind of waiter we would expect in a white tablecloth fine dining restaurant. How did they come up with this menu, I wonder. Marinella tells me, “The menu grew with our customers. That front door brings in a lot of good karma.”
SW: The Branzino is presented with olive oil and black pepper, and a side of mushroom risotto. We can taste the freshness, the charcoal, the splash of lemon and the herbs, but everything is understated. This is a kitchen that understands restraint, and that “less is more.” They let the ingredients speak for themselves.
AW: The aroma of the mushrooms is the real deal. It’s that wholesome woodsy aroma that precedes the bold fresh taste of these gorgeous Ontario mushrooms. Traditional Carnaroli rice imported from Italy is the base of this risotto and prepared al dente. This is luxurious comfort food. Combined with the olive oil and chili flakes it is a perfect companion to the meaty char-grilled fish. I can taste all the ingredients and am in love with each one.
It’s always interesting when I taste something and wonder what is different about it; only to find that what makes it distinct is that it’s the real thing. We’ve become so accustomed to the short cuts. This tiramisu, however, has not been flavoured with coffee liqueur. It is nourished with espresso and brandy, in house made cheese and chocolate zest. This is the heart of Little Italy: a family run kitchen passionate about authentic ingredients and in sharing good food with good friends and family.
SW: What makes it so special for John? “I love my mother,” he tells me. So do we!
~Marinella Simply Italian, 640 College St W, 416-348-9200~