The allure of street food is authenticity and adventure on a plate, with heaping portions, for the price of TTC fare back home. At Little Italy’s Soi Thai, servers recommend two dishes per diner, and that’s conservative, as are the portions. But one could roam the streets of Bangkok for days without finding flavours as rewarding as those racing through the phak bung fai dang, a standout stir-fry of morning glory, garlic and Thai chilies in an umami-rich soy and oyster sauce broth, made in-house by Nopphawan Papa. There’s no pad Thai or curry here: heartier fare includes a tin dish of earthy ground pork threaded with basil and thickened with two runny eggs, best paired with sticky rice from a wicker steam basket. A mound of salmon ceviche dusted with chili flakes and whole mint leaves cools some of the burn from a fiery papaya salad, which is all heat but little of the sweetness that typically balances the Thai staple. The playful decor matches Soi Thai’s ambition to resemble a refuge one discovers unexpectedly, with an assortment of Thai sundries lining the front of the bar and colourful plastic stools beneath tables that are at their most welcoming when topped with frosted mugs of Singha for a backpacker-friendly $5.50. World traveller or not, this soi (Thai for small alley) is a happy one to stumble upon.
Name: A3 Napoli Pizzeria e Friggitoria
Neighbourhood: Little Italy
Contact: 589 College St., a3napoli.com, @A3Napoli
Owners: Libretto Restaurant Group and Nick auf der Mauer
Chefs: Rocco Agostino (Pizzeria Libretto) and Nick auf der Mauer (Porchetta & Co.)
The Food: Quick-service Neapolitan snacks split up into three categories: VPN-certified, wood-fired pies (à la Libretto); pizza fritta (stuffed and fried panzerotti-like pizzas); and seasonal fritti misti (fried bites including arancini, meatballs, zucchini sticks, and frittatina—fried cubes of pasta held together by provola cheese and ham). Just like at Libretto, there’s a Stefano Ferraro oven pumping out the pizza, but it’s kept company by a friggitrice (that’s a fryer, folks) for everything else. Eat in, or get your fried dough to go.
The Drinks: There’s Peroni beer on tap, as well as Capo, the restaurant’s signature brew, made by Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery. Wine-drinkers have the choice between Fielding Estate’s unoaked chardonnay and its fireside red.
The Place: Named after the unfinished Italian highway that leads into the centre of Naples, the 32-seat room has an Autostrada rest-stop feel, with its exposed bricks, black and white subway tiles and strings of incandescent lightbulbs. Additional seating is available on the small backyard and street-side patios.
Grant van Gameren’s claim to greatness is sweating the small details. At Bar Isabel, his first post-Hoof venture, he tiled the wall mosaic himself and obsessed over the perfect technique to grill whole baby octopus. At his new, second spot, he’s replicated the suave yet oh-so-slightly louche quality of the kind of Barcelona tapas bar where you grab an espresso on the way to work, meet friends for five o’clock cocktails, and perch with a paramour late into the night on stools in a corner, grazing from plates of lusciously fatty chorizo and “gildas” of speared olives, Italian peppers and pickled pearl onions. (Those stools are few in number—as in Spain, you’re expected to stand, lean against the bar and mingle.) The menu is weighted to seafood, much of it steamed and served, comme il faut, in the cans in which it’s been preserved. The standout option is pungently delicious razor clams and sweet peppers—they’ll make you reevaluate the quality of supplies in your doomsday bunker. Van Gameren makes a decadent rendition of a McMuffin with a slice of seared, paprika- and nutmeg-laced Spanish blood sausage, sunny-side-up quail egg and a splatter of parsley sauce. Mutton-chopped bartenders push a long, on-theme list of sherries and rare vermouths, yet the real treats are artisanal concoctions, like the sweet-tart Dopeness of Amontillado, Seville orange marmalade and, for healthy measure, a dash of bee pollen. Once the just-opened hype quiets (there’s often a queue through the night), it promises to become a neighbourhood institution.
When customers enter Soi Thai, co-owner Nopphawan Papa (who also goes by Sherry) wants them to feel like they’re stepping into the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, where she was born and raised. “The word soi means small alley, and we want to be like an alley off College Street. It’s like a mom and pop shop: I’m cooking in the kitchen, my husband is out front making drinks and my mom is taking care of our baby,” says Papa. “So once you walk in, you’re walking into our convenience store.” The restaurant’s centrepiece is a shelf stocked with Thai goods, many unavailable in Canada, that Papa and her family brought over from Thailand in suitcases. The items are for display only, but they make for interesting conversation pieces. We had Papa tell us about them.
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Name: Soi Thai
Neighbourhood: Little Italy
Contact: 651 College St. W., @soithaito
Previously: Darwin Bistro
Owners: Nopphawan Lertchaiprasert Papa and Pablito Papa
Chef: Nopphawan Lertchaiprasert Papa
The Food: Traditional Thai street snacks: elaborate golden-fried omelettes, pork and chicken skewers and crispy, spiced chicken wings are just a few of the sharing plates on offer. Nopphawan, a self-taught chef, tasted her way through Bangkok’s culinary scene, but when she moved to Toronto five years ago she struggled to find a Thai restaurant that offered the authentic no-frills, street-cuisine experience. (“One that allows you to eat all day, which is the Thai way,” she said.) Her menu mixes traditional flavours with Thai trends that are on the rise. All sharing plates are priced at $10, but a snack menu that will feature tapas-style dishes priced at $3–$6 is in the works.
The Drinks: A short list of wine and beer, plus three cocktails made with tropical ingredients like mango, lychee and pineapple. Non-alcoholic options include house-made cha yen—a traditional drink made with iced tea, served with or without milk.
The Place: It’s fitting that soi means alleyway in Thai, since the restaurant is tucked into a narrow space on busy College Street. The owners wanted to recreate the feeling of stumbling onto one of Bangkok’s lively laneways: plastic stools, colourful flags and slapdash driftwood benches are standard details, but a bar disguised as a makeshift convenience store is the true pièce de résistance—it’s packed with hard-to-find Thai treats that Nopphawan’s mother brought over from Thailand in her suitcase.
Name: Fat City Blues
Neighbourhood: Little Italy
Contact Info: 890 College St., 647-345-8282, fatcityblues.com, @fatcityblues
Previously: The Huntsman Tavern
Owners: Cameron Hutton and Steve McKeon (Small Town Food Co.), Simon Ho (The Drake)
Chef: Charles Duncan (Splendido)
The Food: Updated Cajun classics: peanuts boiled in their shells; battered alligator po’ boys on soft baguette with a house-made remoulade; creole-spiked hush puppies—spicy bites dredged in cornmeal, fried until golden and served with a honey-cider cream; and crab legs (bib included). And it wouldn’t be a taste of the bayou without bivalves. At Fat City, the oysters are prepared three ways: raw, baked and fried. A by-the-weight crawfish boil is in the works and will likely be on the menu for when summer arrives.
The Drinks: Southern-inspired potent potables, including the Hurricane (the passion fruit– and rum-spiked cocktail synonymous with party beads) and the Sazerac, along with a list of Ho’s signature cocktails that are twists on the N’awlins classics: Land of Dixie and Fiyo on the Bayou are both boozy numbers. An absinthe menu is in the works with three varieties currently on offer, including one from Dillon’s.
The Place: Inspired by the jazz bars of Frenchman Street, a piano sits in the middle of the restaurant for diners who aren’t afraid to tickle the ivories and belt out a tune. Every Thursday through Sunday (but soon, nightly), guests can sip their Sazeracs in front of live blues and jazz performances. Restored wood, haphazardly nailed onto one wall, paired with polished blue banquettes and tables covered in newspaper clippings give the space a clean, but slightly rough-around-the-edges look.
The red brick Romanesque Revival at College and Palmerston has lived a few lives in its 126 years. In the early days of the city it was a Baptist church. By the mid-20th century it was serving Portuguese Seventh Day Adventists. Finally, in 2006, the dwindling congregation sold up to a group of investors, led by the developer Matthew Kosoy, so it could be turned into luxury condos. One of the investors, Joel Prussky, a capital markets trader at BMO, came in with his eye on a smaller unit—the former rectory, a mere 5,500 square feet spread over three storeys. He liked the idea of preserving a piece of the city’s history and thought it would be a fun investment. But it would be seven years before the space was habitable—the building’s heritage designation slowed development. In the interim, Prussky met and fell in love with his wife, Janice Nathanson, had a daughter, Kate, bought a house in Casa Loma and raised an Aussiedoodle named Coco. As construction rolled along, the family got excited about the idea of moving downtown and having Kensington’s shops and College’s restaurant row at their doorstep. To prepare for move-in, Prussky and Nathanson worked closely with two interior designers, Mazen El-Abdullah and Lisa Lev, to finish the space to their tastes. They added a gracious central staircase, a roof deck with 360-degree views of the city and an elevator to bypass the long hike (they have wet bars on every floor for the same reason). In 2013, they finally moved in, and they’ve been loving it ever since.
We know that Pizzeria Libretto and Porchetta & Co. are besties now, what with their side-by-side venture set to open on King West this summer, but the relationship is apparently more serious than previously known. It turns out that the two businesses are teaming up on another restaurant that’s set to open this spring at College and Clinton, in the Mad Italian’s old spot. The new place, which will be called A3 Napoli Pizzeria e Friggitoria, will serve Neapolitan street food, including pizza and fried foods (the owners won’t specify what kinds exactly, but we’re guessing arancini, fried calamari and the like). Libretto’s Rocco Agostino will act as executive chef, and Porchetta’s Nick auf der Mauer will help develop the menu. Currently, the plan is for the restaurant to be open seven days a week, from lunchtime until midnight. It will offer takeout and sit-down food service, plus Italian and local brews. And the cryptic name? That’s a reference to a motorway that leads into the heart of Naples, Italy.
Name: Bar Raval
Contact Info: 505 College St., thisisbarraval.com, @bar_raval
Neighbourhood: Little Italy
Owners: Grant Van Gameren (Bar Isabel), Mike Webster (Momofuku and Bar Isabel) and Robin Goodfellow (Ursa)
Chefs: Van Gameren and former Bar Isabel sous chefs Ryan Baddeley and Keenan Mcvey
The Food: Guests at van Gameren’s new pinchos place dine shoulder-to-shoulder, eating from a tapas menu that doesn’t bother much with fanciness: small bites like steamed leeks on romesco, morcilla sausage with quail eggs and salty boquerón—quintessential casual northern-Spanish snacks—are eaten with toothpicks. The canned seafood, some of it imported, some house-made, includes preserved mussels, smoked mackerel with rosemary, as well as berberechos—small, saltwater clams from Conservas de Campados that are steamed in the can they come in, then served with a side of chips and a house aperitivo sauce. Embuditos (cured meat), and plancha-grilled seafood, meats and cheeses round out the snacks. And at Bar Raval, anytime is tapas time: it’s open every day, from 8 a.m.–2 a.m.
The Drinks: Bar Raval’s low-octane tipples, like the Jack Knife made with Tio Pepe, promote day drinking (as well as afternoon functioning). A long list of fortified wine, vermouth and sherry is available all day, too. The bar itself is built for speed and functionality: it boasts a sunken, angled gutter that keeps the team’s mise en place out of the way.
The Place: A tin roof is all that’s left of what used to be Teatro. Intricate, Antoni Gaudí-inspired woodwork (completed by design team Partisan for a price tag of $200,000) melts mahogany into swooping curves, with few right angles in sight, making the bar feel like a warm and super-stylish grotto.
—The minimum amount customers have to spend—per hour—for the privilege of watching Italy’s World Cup matches at Cafe Diplomatico in Little Italy. According to the CBC, the College Street institution debuted the minimum-spend policy during last Saturday’s Italy-England game. As one customer noted, the rule amounts to an enforced-drinking policy, since few people are likely to consume enough food to cover the charge, especially at a place where a large pizza only costs $14.50.
Sale of the Week: the $1.7 million Victorian that shows the changing nature of Little Italy’s rental stock
The Property: This massive, three-storey Victorian semi is split into three separate, designer-quality suites, one on each of the lower and main levels, with a larger one taking up the second and third storeys. Each unit has a separate kitchen with gas appliances. The top level houses a master bedroom and sitting room with a walkout to a 460-square-foot deck. In all, the seller claims the property can generate $94,800 gross annually, but the real draw is the possibility of occupying the huge upper suite while renting out the other two.
The Property: The end unit on a row of semi-detached townhomes, located on a quiet laneway within walking distance of Trinity Bellwoods Park. The fact that it shares only one wall with neighbours means it has ideal south, east and west exposures and an unobstructed view of the downtown skyline. In terms of square footage, it approaches the size of an actual home, but it’s taxed like a condo. A central staircase creates a neat dividing line through the interior space, and a finished lower level gives the owner a little extra room to sprawl. Out back, the private yard is a low-maintenance concrete urban garden.
In a heartwarming note on its storefront window, Queen Video announced the closure of its College location earlier this week. “Ten years hasn’t been long enough, but our lease has ended…thank you Little Italy, we will miss all you movie lovers.” While this is unfortunate news for neighbourhood film buffs (at least, those who still frequent video stores instead of just downloading everything), the store’s Queen Street and Bloor Street locations will continue to peddle rentals for “many years to come.”
In the meantime, if you fancy adding to your physical DVD collection, the College outpost is selling off all 30,000 of its titles for $6.20 each. There are some solid deals on hard-to-find videos, including silent films, niche documentaries, music movies and tonnes of foreign films. Of course, there are also popular Oscar picks, but if you’re going to delve into the extensive archives, it’s worth emerging with an obscure find or two. The sale is on until April 30.