The last chain “Italian” restaurant I ate at was the Olive Garden. With it’s fake greenery and grotto and endless bowl of salad, it screamed dream, as in Disney like dream of pseudo reality. All this talk of no carbs, Atkin’s or neo-paleo makes one hungry and curious why someone would open a pasta and pizza restaurant.
So, with a mix of curiosity and bemusement, a friend and I went to Levetto in Toronto’s West end. It is a new chain of modern fast food Italian.
The whole place feels future nostalgic – much like diner’s that remind you of the promise of flying cars and the glory of robots. This place echoes Italian kitchens that may have never existed. Like Mario’s was a cartoon NY Italian and Olive Garden was a grove restaurant, this has a modern Italian kitchen feel even though I have never been in a modern Italian kitchen other than those of sets of Food Network like Anne Burrell’s and Giada.
Sitting with Birra Moretti looking over the menus, we noticed that we were the only adult men in there. Every other table was mothers with their kid. It was largely a one mother to one kid affair where a pizza or pasta was ordered along with a salad. The salad being picked at by the matron with what I presume was jealous looks at the carbs while they waited for the inevitable refrain of “too full” so that they could finish the leftovers. Why waste it, right?
The menu is tight. Seven different pastas with matching sauces, some of the same ingredients that show on their pizza and salads but the combinations different enough to escape notice. Classic tastes like carbonara lightened with the use of fresh scallion. A lot of the fun is seeing the descriptions amped up. I grew up eating jowls but as guinciale, it feels more grown up, urban and refined.
We had two salads. Each came in a large white bowl that further accentuated the feel of a family style. Deep enough and generous enough to share. Brave open kitchen and subway tile for a faster food restaurant. Every mistake and preparation is on display. Every go to someone’s house and sit at the breakfast bar and look in while they make supper? That’s the feeling.
The Misticanza had shaved fennel, radish, mixed greens, orange and fresh dill. Ingredients in the salad echo the ingredients in the pasta and the pizza. Fennel, various meats, cheeses all show up multiple times. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the preparation and flavour mixes switch enough to bolster familiarity while still pushing novelty. Always a good way to get the kids and picky adults to eat is to mix a little new with something comfortable. Roasted radicchio salad described as fruit, greens, toasted almonds … yada, yada, yada. All dishes have a list of ingredients that doesn’t do the plates justice. This salad reminded me of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Something about the combination of roasted almonds and summer strawberries. I wonder if they switch it up to include concorde grapes for the fall and channel Smucker’s?
The salads, like the descriptions, could have used an editor. The mixed greens that were used to increase the volume but the volume could be turned down. I know it would be hard to leave them out and present a small plate of the star ingredients as a salad and still charge a similar price but it would make for a better salad. The issue is that the great bites get lost in the greens. Maybe more neutral greens or singularly matched roughage would work better such as baby spinach or leaf lettuce.
The pizzas are advertised as Roman style, a square thick dough rolled out and served on a cutting board. We had the Italian sausage, fennel, roasted red pepper flake, olives, Fior di Latte and fennel fronds. A mouthful to say and eat. We probably ordered too much for just us two but there was nothing left. Having heard that their reputation has been made on these pizzas, we saw several boxes parade out the door in the arms of more women. The square style and rustic chunkiness reminds me of something that we would often have when I was growing up that came in a square box with a can of sauce and plastic cheese. Those are pleasant memories of pizza nights where we had the exotic Italian tastes. These are much better and I saw several tykes mawing down the slices.
Dessert and coffee. Illy espresso done Italian style and not third wave coffee. Dark, thick, rich with a chocolate and roasty notes. Tiramisu for one, warm brown butter and Coconut semolina cake baked earlier by our attendant. Tiramisu flirts with tradition before settling with a new darling of adding a coulis rather than sticking with the older gentleman of a coffee chocolate filling. It works.
The other dessert had better flavours but the cake is too dry and more warm butter could have saved it. Butter and chocolate rarely ruin dishes and these two could have used more of both.
After the meal, I felt overly full and satisfied. Summing up, if this was in my neighbourhood, and it looks as if the chain is expanding (Chinatown soon!), then I could see how this would work as a place that me and my kid and diet could all go out to dine satisfactorily.
This is not a small task. When you think about your childhood nostalgia, it is not the best food you remember but rather the time, moments or something else sappy. Making Kraft pizza or learning how to make a peanut and jam sandwich are moments for me and they resonate in this meal. The kid talking about robots, leaning on the white table over his pizza while his mother picks at his leftovers will have those kind of memories. Robots and then an activity at the Y across the road. A ritual, a future memory.