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The Big Ragu
Address: 1338 Lansdowne Ave
Hours Mon. to Fri:, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.; Sat. to Sun., 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip $70
**** (out of five)
The Big Ragu is tucked into the tiny block that serves as the roundabout for the Lansdowne bus, at the western gateway to St. Clair West’s Corso Italia — also known as Little Italy 2.0, version 1.0 (now upgraded to at least 1.9.2) being College Street between Bathurst and Ossington, while version 3.0 is spread all over Woodbridge. Little Italy migrated north and west with Toronto’s Italians, but for most veteran Torontonians, the heyday of St. Clair West was in 1982, when the street was overrun with a million fans celebrating Italy’s World Cup win.
The street began to decline after that, losing most of the cafés, tailors, bridal stores, supermarkets and restaurants that sustained its character. On the western end, only La Bruschetta remained among the restaurants, at least until Carmine and Barbara Accogli took over the space at Lansdowne almost four years ago.
“2003 was an incredible year,” reminisces Carmine on a humid afternoon just before dinner service. “We opened the restaurant, and while we were opening the restaurant my wife was pregnant. We bought a house, and I got offered to sing some songs by someone who used to see me sing in the clubs years ago. Each song paid for a piece of my kitchen. The first song paid for my grill, the second song paid for the pizza oven. And the very first one I did of all these seven got me nominated for a Juno. So, in 2003, I won a Juno, opened a restaurant, bought a house and had a baby. Never want to do that ever again.”
A musician who supported himself working as a bartender, waiter, baker and pizza chef, Carmine married Barbara Chiaravalloti, the daughter of the owners of Scarborough’s Bona Via Bakery and decided it was time to open their own place. When bids fell through on several other locations, Carmine found himself complaining to one of his in-law’s customers while delivering bread.
“I was unloading on the previous owner of this location — we’d never had a conversation other than hi or bye, and he said ‘You want to get into this business? I want to get out! Let’s go have a coffee.’ Brought my wife’s family over to look at it, they’ve been in this business for a long time, and they said it’s a good place to make your mistakes. I said, ‘Great.’
“I went back the next day, signed the lease, and went and talked to one of my mentors who said I hope you can do for this area what other people have done for other areas. It kind of gave me a mission.”
On a sweltering Saturday night, The Big Ragu is full of regulars from in and outside the area; Carmine is playing the enthusiastic host, and, in the kitchen, chef Enza Aloi — a veteran of Queen Street’s Terroni — is in charge of the menu of most Roman classics — Saltimboca alla Romana, Sfizioso, Buccatini A’matriciana and Baccala in Guazzetto. There are simple but vivid appetizers like the Salsiccia & Rapini — peppery grilled sausage and garlicky greens, and a chicken special cooked Napolitano style — richly reduced tomato sauce with olives and capers. It’s central Italian food, vivid and authentic, and you can see why the Accoglis have regulars.
“I remember in the first year,” says Carmine, “people gave me bottles of wine, saying ‘We’re so happy you’re here!’ Wine, cognac — they’re paying for my meal then they’re giving me a gift?”