Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Address: 640 College St.
Hours: Mon. to Sun., 8 a.m. – 1 a.m.
Capacity: 74 inside, 70 patio
Dinner for two with tax and tip: $75
**** (out of five)
By the time Mark Bruyea shut down the College Street restaurant he ran with his brother Jeff, he was having second thoughts about just what kind of restaurant he wanted to run, and what kind of restaurant eatery-saturated Little Italy needed. Bruyea Brothers was the sort of ambitious, high-concept sort of place that College Street had flirted with and rejected over and over, and maybe it was time for a change.
“My brother decided to get out of the business,” Bruyea recalls, “which kind of precipitated things and made it happen more quickly. I was looking around, I had met a few of the guys who are my new partners a year or so ago, and they had the idea to come in with Cucina.”
Working with the same prime corner location that housed Bruyea Brothers, Cucina has replaced the wood and solemn brown tones of the old space with clean brick, white tile and a sharp new logo in red and white that wouldn’t be out of place in a fast food franchise. The red and white is carried over to the leather chairs by the big front window, a perfect place for College Street’s daytime population of creative loafers and the flexibly employed to set up shop with laptop, cellphone and newspaper.
“We wanted the space to be used by the neighbourhood at any time of the day,” Bruyea explain, “to be the kind of place where you can come in and grab a coffee in the morning, a pastry, come in for a quick lunch, or if you feel like coming in later you can have an early dinner, or even a late dinner because the kitchen’s open ’til one. On the weekends we have somebody that does some music for us, so you can come in and have a drink. We’re as close as we can to being a 24-hour sort of place.”
But the biggest change is to the menu. Gone are the elaborate dishes, built like a catalogue and plated like architecture, in favour of rustic, southern Italian fare, reasonably priced and heavy on the three Ps: panini, pizzas and pastas. A beef carpaccio appetizer comes drizzled with olive oil and a generous scattering of capers and arugula. The raw beef is tender and paper-thin, the dressings tart and flavourful, a perfect kick-start to the taste buds.
The pappardelle with wild mushrooms, sausage and pesto won’t win any prizes for elegance, but it doesn’t have to — the pasta ribbons are perfectly cooked, and the sauce is rich and earthy. You can, if overwhelmed by habit, spoon parmesan cheese over this sort of dish, but it’s a temptation to be resisted — there’s so much happening in the interaction between the mushrooms, meat and basil that even the best parmesan takes it a note too far.
The pastry case at the front is full of choices to finish the meal, but while they remain in season, a fresh berry tart is a wise choice.
College Street has transformed itself in 15 years, like most of the downtown, into a much younger neighbourhood. The aspirant hipsters who patronized the original Bar Italia and helped open Kalendar have stayed put, setting down roots and starting families, and the irony is that they want College Street to become a neighbourhood strip again.
“I think the people that were here originally, 15 years ago, sold their places and moved away,” Bruyea says, “and you have young families moving in and re-doing their houses. They want somewhere to go that’s not going to cost them a lot of money every time they come in — they’re paying for their houses — and we hope we can give them quality with a nice price point. We want people to come in with a stroller if they want, have a coffee and unwind. We’re wired for Internet so you can come in and do work if you want. That’s what we want — we want the neighbourhood to use us, that’s the bottom line.”