Blood oranges line the plate of my fennel and arugula salad that’s tossed in oil and fresh lemon juice. With a dash of salt and smattering of feta cheese, I’ve crafted my very own insalata Umbria and am one step closer to becoming chef to the celebrities.
The simple salad is a favourite at Corso Italia’s La Bruschetta, the family-owned celebrity hotspot that has catered to a cross-section of personalities including Sofia Loren, John Malkovich, Bette Midler and the Olsen Twins. In the same year the Toronto restaurant turns 30, it’s opening its kitchen for cooking classes to share the culinary secrets that keep the stars hungry for more.
Why celebrities flock to La Bruschetta while in Toronto is a mystery to owner Silvia Piantoni.
“We’re so off the beaten path that, if someone hasn’t told you about us, I don’t see how you would find us,” she says. “We’ve had celebrities come in and really like it. They’ve told a lot of other people, and they just keep telling them and telling them.”
Brenda Piantoni, Silvia’s sister and an instructor for the class, tells me to add more flour to the pasta dough I just made from scratch. After running it through a pasta press following Brenda’s assistant and long-time employee Roger Duarte’s instructions, the dough is now stretched out and thin enough to support the fungi filling of my second course, wild mushroom ravioli.
My pasta pockets don’t look perfect, but initial imperfections are fine by Silvia. “When we start making a new dish, the first time it’s good and the second time it gets better and better and better,” she says. “It’s (about) perfecting it, and making it the way you like it. If you like the flavour of Limoncello, add some more Limoncello.”
I pour more of the Italian liqueur into the pan that’s cooking my third course, bassa alla Napoletana — spinach, garlic and provolone wrapped in a fish filet. After cooking the fish in the Limoncello, garlic, oil and some hot water, it’s ready to serve.
Serving customers for three decades has surely established La Bruschetta’s longevity in a city where restaurant turnover is all too common. Silvia says she wishes she had the secret to their success.
“Trends change all the time — in clothing, food, wine, everything — but I think that in the end, what’s old is always new again. There’s still room for these kind of restaurants, for traditional Italian food.”
There’s not much room left in me for dessert, but Brenda gives a quick lesson on preparing brutta ma buona (“ugly but good”), a layer of ladyfinger-like cookies, melted chocolate, custard and amaretto cookies.
After espresso, I ask Silvia if I could now cook for the stars, too.
“I don’t see why not!,” she laughs, “Sure!”