Restaurant: Buca Osteria & Enoteca – Part 2/3
Last Visited: February 28, 2013
Location: Toronto, ON (King West)
Address: 602 King St West
Transit: King St West at Portland St
Phone: (416) 865-1600
Price Range: $30-50+ (Mains $25-35)
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Since 2009
- Executive Chef Rob Gentile
- Upscale dining
- Italian chefs/staff
- Regional authentic Italian food
- Some Canadian-Italian food
- House cured meats/charcuterie
- Local meats
- Local favourite
- Hidden gem
- Award winning
- Tasting menu available
- Extensive wine list
- Reservations recommended
- Sunday 5 pm – 10 pm
- Mon-Thurs. 11:30 am – 3:00 pm, 5:00-10:00 pm
- Friday 11:30 am – 3:00 pm
- Saturday 5:00-11:00 pm
- Twitter: @bucatoronto
**Recommendations: Boulate (Sicilian dumplings), Parmigiana di Melanzane (fried eggplant), Anatra (duck breast carpaccio), Bigoli (duck egg pasta), Spaghetti al Nero di Maiale (pork blood pasta), salumi, Melanzane Al Cioccolato (sugared eggplant tart)
Dare I say it? I don’t know because it’s a bold statement, but it deserves it. It was for sure in my top 3 favourite restaurants I tried in Follow Me Foodie to Toronto (and I tried a lot of fantastic restaurants), but I’m going to go even further and say it’s one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Canada so far. There, I said it. It feels good too.
I would have easily found it through research, but there is no way I would have found it walking down the street. This is not a place you happen to pass by or stop in to check out, this is a place you plan for, and if you don’t make a reservation, you’ll likely be out of luck. It’s considered one of “Toronto’s Best Restaurants” and as much as I criticize “best” lists, I can fully understand why this one makes it on many.
The restaurant is tucked away in an alley way and it’s one of the city’s well known hidden gems. I felt like I was back in Italy looking for it since the “best restaurants” were always found off the main strip. This isn’t a characteristic of Toronto, but it was of Buca.
The size of the restaurant was unexpected and it was located inside a giant brick walled historic warehouse. The architecture was something out of the 17th century (or 16th century? I’m no architectural historian) and there was an authenticity to it that had my heart racing and appetite going. I’m not going to lie, but it kind of reminded me of the “Everybody” Backstreet Boys music video set. Anyway I was excited. It set a mood. There was a theme, and I could feel the energy as soon as I set foot inside.
Even more is that most (if not all) the staff had Italian accents and I felt like I was really in Italy again. The whole experience took me away and for a moment I forgot I was in Toronto. This was Italy away from Italy.
Buca Osteria & Enoteca has been raved by local and international media, Torontonians, tourists (who are lucky enough to find it), and even celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, who tweeted it as his “favourite meal of the year” (and he was dining with chef Derek Dammann).
I was given the recommendation by the talented Chef John Horne at highly acclaimed fine dining restaurant Canoe in Toronto. When I passed the name to my friend Nicki at View the Vibe, she confirmed it as her favourite restaurant too. I respect both these palates, so I made it a top priority.
I know I’ve hyped it up a lot and I really don’t want to do that, but I’m passionate about this restaurant. Being from Vancouver, BC I can say we don’t have anything like this as to why I valued it even more. I don’t want to keep playing that East Coast VS West Coast game (I actually kind of do), but if Vancouver puts Toronto’s Asian (specifically Chinese) food to shame, than Toronto puts Vancouver’s Italian food to shame. Each city is lucky enough to have options for both, but it’s all relative and the Italian influence is just stronger on the East Coast. Toronto has the larger Italian population, and their Italian food scene is more vibrant and authentic with way more options and resources for ingredients.
Buca specializes in regional Italian cuisine, and it is my favourite upscale authentic Italian dining experience I’ve had in Canada so far. It is not traditional fine dining, but it is sophisticated, sexy and refined. It is not necessarily romantic or intimate, but good for small or big groups and excellent for entertaining business affairs and guests.
While the food is authentic in spirit, it is made with local and global ingredients so the flavours are Italian, but also slightly Canadian. The cuisine and techniques are traditional, but the menu is inspired and modern with some innovative approaches while remaining true to its Italian roots. I use the word “authentic” lightly too, as I find it problematic – see here.
I was lucky enough to meet Executive Chef Rob Gentile who is the mastermind behind this epic dining experience. Everything is made from scratch, which is expected from restaurants of this caliber, but he takes it to another level. The bread, salumi, and pastas are house made and there is an expert approach to the craft. There are many restaurants making their own salumi that shouldn’t, and it’s an art most appreciated when taken seriously. Here, they know what they are doing and that concentration, passion and dedication is consistent in every dish.
The menu is fairly large and descriptive and perhaps a bit overwhelming. I wanted to order everything (no surprise), but ended up leaving it in chef’s hands with a couple requests that really caught my eye. For the size of the restaurant and the volume they do I was incredibly impressed with the quality delivered. The price is in the room and brand, but also for the expertly prepared food.
The care, detail and effort that went into each component made even the simplest dishes taste extravagant. There were many things I’ve had before, but trying them here made me feel like it was my first time. So many plates were unique to Buca and chef’s personal touches that they can’t be replicated even if copied. It was fancy without being finicky, and casual without being lazy.
Buca left a lasting impression and it’s one of those restaurants I will likely put on my itinerary every time I go back to Toronto now. That’s coming from someone who likes to always try something new too.
Note: MENU DEGUSTAZIONE Buca’s 8 course winter tasting menu $90 with wine pairings $150. Food photogrpahy credit to Nicki at View the Vibe.
On the table:
2010, Costaripa Castelline Groppello Valtenesi, Lombardy, Italy – It’s known as an elegant savoury red wine with flavours of sage and olive wood. It was great with the pasta courses and there was little acidity, some minerality, a touch of oak, medium body and a long finish.
Panella with Pepperoncino & Caciotta Sotto Sale – 5/6 (Excellent)
- Spelt panella with pepperoncino and lime under Caciotta sotto sale (salty cheese).
- This was not on the menu and chef made it as an amuse bouche.
- If it was on the menu I would recommend ordering it though.
- Panella is a savoury Sicilian fritter (fried dough) traditionally made from water, chickpea flour and salt and pepper.
- This version was made with a mix of spelt flour, rice flour, and some saffron which is not traditional.
- There may have been fennel seed in the dough too, and it was aromatic and floral, but not overpowering.
- Traditionally Panella is served as is, as a street or market snack, and sometimes with a side of tomato sauce for dipping. These were fancy!
- It was topped with shavings of Caciotta Sotto Sale (salty cheese) which was aged for 1 month and flower petals.
- The cow’s milk cheese was made in house and it was mild, but salty and feathery soft.
- It was a very nutty, salty, sweet and zesty bite with pickled lime zest and juice.
- This took the “cheese and cracker” to another level.
Gnocco Fritto – 4/6 (Very good)
- Fried dumplings with colonnata spiced lardo di buca ($7 a la carte)
- These are fried savoury dough puffs from Emilia-Romagna (Northern Italy) traditionally eaten with cured Italian meats (salumi).
- I haven’t even come across these outside of Europe and I didn’t even recognize them because they were so “done up”.
- The Gnocco Fritto was light and crisp and crusted in pistachio crumbs with a paper thin slice of melt in your mouth buttery lardo wilted over top.
- This was a housemade Lardo di Colonnata, which is not necessarily authentic if it is made outside of Colonnata, but it was still excellent.
- It is very ambitious to make Lardo di Colonnata because it can’t be easily replicated.
- Lardo di Colonnata is a highly prized lardo from Colonnata and I wish I knew more about it before I ate it.
- This lardo is made from a special breed of pigs from the Tuscan region.
- The fatback is cured in garlic rubbed white marble basins from the Alps (area known for its pristine marble).
- It cures and ages in caves and takes a minimum of 6 months to age and it requires no additives or preservatives.
- It is often spiced with rosemary, black pepper, cinnamon, and or cloves.
- The process to make this lardo is very technical, but the method has never changed since the Roman Age – see more here.
- It was all white, silky smooth, and basically pure fat so it was very rich and this was just enough.
- The Gnocco Fritto was really not the focus, the star of the show was the lardo even though it was made in house and not the “real deal”.
- It was an impressive house made Lardo di Colonnata and I just wish I had the real one to compare side by side.
- It was also served with a thick 5 year old balsamic vinegar on the side to cut the richness of the lardo.
- I used it sparingly because I really wanted to taste the lardo. I had the vinegar after.
**Boulate – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- Sicilian dumplings, guanciale, brussels sprouts, pecorino crotonese ($10 a la carte)
- @$#%! I loved these! I wanted a full order of them, but I knew there was a lot more food coming.
- I’ve never tried these before and now I’m afraid to because these set the standard very high.
- Sicilian bread dumplings are like mini bread rolls. It was crispy on the exterior and then a bit chewy.
- If you like bacon and brussel sprouts, or bacon and cheese pizza, than this is a no brainer.
- I could taste salty ham, bacon, brussel sprouts and the sharp salty grated pecorino crotonese cheese on top.
- The fillings in the roll will vary, but this appetizer is easily liked by many palates.
- It was almost like a rolled flat bread pizza bite, but the flavours delivered beyond that concept.
Nodini (Bread Knots) – 3/6 (Good)
- Warm bread knots with olive oil, rosemary, garlic and sea salt $6
- This is one of the house favourites and most popular appetizers, but unfortunately I couldn’t find the same love for them.
- Chef Gentile shared his recipe for his famous Nodini in the Toronto Star (here) and it is made with bread flour and semolina flour.
- It tasted exactly like the description and it just seemed like pizza dough baked fresh from the oven.
- They had a nice and crisp exterior, but I found the inside a bit dense, bready and chewy rather than soft or pillowy.
- I really wanted to love them, but they just didn’t do it for me and it was a bit ordinary.
- I expected the olive oil to be very fruity with a lingering spice from the antioxidants, but I didn’t get that either and it was just good.
Homemade Burrata Cheese – 3/6 (Good)
- I love burrata (who doesn’t?), but it is hard for me to talk about it because I haven’t tried a burrata in Italy.
- Real Italian burrata has to be made in Italy and even Italian burratas we get in North America are not really the authentic kind.
- Technically, burrata “expires” the same day it is made, or is said to be best eaten within 24 hours of it being made.
- It can still be eaten after “expiry”, but this is not ideal.
- So if it needs to be exported to a far away country, then it’s not technically the fresh Italian burrata they eat in Italy.
- It is cream and fresh mozzarella wrapped up in solid mozzarella.
- It is then wrapped in leaves of asphode, but exported burratas are never wrapped in leaves and even in Italy they aren’t always wrapped in leaves.
- I have grown to love the “Italian burrata” served in North America despite it not being the “real deal”, so it is hard for me to appreciate the real version of it now. A bit sad, but true.
- This version could very well be closer to the real burrata found in Italy, but unfortunately I wouldn’t know and have yet to experience it.
- On the other hand I loved how Chef tied up the bundle with a white anchovy and that was brilliant despite it being non-traditional.
- I cut open the bundle and inside was a mixture of mozzarella scraps, basil and cream, but more mozzarella chunks/curds than cream.
- They weren’t squeaky cheese curds, but pieces of mozzarella and it was a crumbly stuffing.
- The cream should have been buttery and rich (burrata meaning “buttered”), but it was on the runny and watery side so I wasn’t as keen.
- It is a great way to use up mozzarella scraps and I was happy to see nothing wasted, but it wasn’t my style of burrata although I appreciate the effort.
- The first time I tried a housemade burrata was actually in Vancouver at Cento Notti – see here.
I had expressed interest in the crispy pig ears and lamb brains and then this platter came out! Win.
**Salumi Di Buca – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- I do not normally order salumi, just because most of the time it is imported or bought and I don’t see the value in it.
- If I have access to the supplier I rather buy it myself and enjoy it at home, so that’s why I rarely order it or go out for it.
- However if you are dining at Buca, it would be a shame to miss out on the salumi section. This is their specialty.
- All their salumi is made in house so some of the meats you’re eating could be cured and aged months or even a year ago.
- As I mentioned in the intro, making salumi is an art (or craft) and not many people can master this art.
- Here, they take it seriously. They have the skill, experience, high quality ingredients and proper equipment (including an in house cold room) to make it truly amazing.
- House-made Sopressata – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- Sopressata is an Italian dry salami.
- I’m not sure which region of Italy this sopressata recipe is based on, but sopressata is a specialty in Southern Italy.
- It was fatty, but not overly so and rich in flavour with quality pork, black pepper, garlic and fennel seeds.
- The meat was compact and tight which is ideal since the water content evaporates. It was cured and aged well with time and care.
- The meat was well mixed and even in colour and it was firm, but not hard to chew.
- Salsicce Ciocare – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- This was a house cured pork and fennel sausage.
- It was almost juicy in the beginning and then salty with a spicy after kick.
- This one had fennel, Italian hot peppers and perhaps paprika so it was smoky and the spice was gradual.
- Again it was fatty and a bit oily, but not overly so and it had a nice medium firm chew and buttery texture.
- I don’t know about salumi enough to go into detail, but each sausage is worth a 10 page essay.
- The salumi was not necessarily my favourite thing from what I tried, but they are worth ordering and hence 6/6 – a “must try”.
**Lardo Wrapped Grissini – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- This was very good, but just so rich so I wouldn’t want more than one stick.
- I think this was the housemade Lardo di Colonnata I mentioned at the top that was served on the Gnocco Fritto.
- I was able to appreciate it much more served like this.
- The thinly sliced pure white lardo was smooth and silky and not chewy at all.
- It was salty and melted in my mouth and in was truly incredible and very decadent.
- The Grissini (dry Italian breadsticks) were perfect since the lardo was so fatty and rich just like butter.
- For details about the intense process of making Lardo di Colonnata see my descriptions for the Gnocco Fritto above.
- Again, not necessarily my favourite thing from what I tried, but it was so well executed, ambitious and impressive! Therefore it is a “must try”.
Olive Ascolane – 4/6 (Very good)
- Fried olives stuffed with house made sausage ($8 a la carte – comes with 8 olives)
- Olive Ascolane originated in Ascoli Piceno (area in central Italy), but the appetizer is now found throughout Italy.
- These warm olives were Taggiasche Olives which are rare and prized olives found in Liguria, Italy (northern Italy).
- Traditionally Olive Ascolane are made from olives in the Ascoli Piceno area, but they changed it by using a premium olive.
- They are small dark green-black-ish olives that are rich and meaty and quite salty and a bit sour.
- It is an aggressive olive with a lot of flavour and sodium so it was on the salty side for me and I have a high tolerance for salt.
- The inside was stuffed with a smoked sausage which will vary.
- It was a juicy burst of olive and then moist sausage, but it was stronger with olive than sausage for sure.
- They were nice and crispy with a thin breadcrumb batter, but again just on the salty side for me.
- The olives are great as is and I would have liked to try them not deep fried since they are such a rarity, but they really don’t hold back on quality ingredients here.
Orecchio di Maiale – 4/6 (Very good)
- Crisp pig’s ears with wild fennel salt ($8 a la carte)
- Simple and delicious. This is an ideal bar snack.
- They were almost like Chicharrón or crackling.
- They were not chewy or gelatinous and likely brined, cured, sous vide, braised etc., before being deep fried.
- They were very crunchy and nicely finished with wild fennel salt.
- I would order the salumi before I would order this, although it is apples and oranges.
- This was good, but not something I would have to order again.
- Lambs brain alla saltimbocco with Sicilian caper agliata ($9 a la carte)
- Italians eat a lot of offal just like Asians, French and Latin cultures.
- I like brain, but I don’t love it and I was curious to try this appetizer since it is rarely offered outside of Italy.
- Cervello Fritto (crispy fried and breaded veal brains) or fried lamb brains are popular in certain areas of Italy, but this was another take on them.
- It was a smart twist on a traditional Veal Saltimbocca – veal rolled up with prosciutto and sage cooked in marsala and butter.
- I’m not exactly sure what he did here, but I think it was a generous chunk of lamb’s brain wrapped in prosciutto and sage.
- If you’ve never had brain it is extremely creamy, tender, soft and rich. It is almost all fat, but it is not chewy fat.
- It tastes almost like sweetbreads and the flavour is mild.
- I think the lamb’s brain was crusted in parmesan crumbs and deep fried before it was wrapped in prosciutto and perhaps deep fried again?
- There was a nice contrast of creamy brain and crispy prosciutto which I liked.
- The brain was almost like a pâté and mixed with plenty of herbs to freshen up the flavours and balance out the heavy meat.
- The Sicilian caper agliata was served on the side, but the acid helped ease the richness.
- The garlic, caper and herb sauce was very salty and sour with plenty of lemon juice, vinegar, garlic and parsley.
- The prosciutto and the Sicilian caper agliata was a very salty combination, so overall I found it too salty.
- It was an extremely rich appetizer and one of these was more than enough, but they were very good.
- This was for offal lovers and he didn’t hold back on the brain. I liked the “risk”.
- If you love brain I would recommend trying these, but they are salty and that’s another issue regardless of liking brain or not.
- Another unique and Persian style of lamb’s brain I had was from Diva at the Met – see Maghaz.
**Anatra – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- Thinly sliced duck breast with house-made ricotta salata, pickled orange, fennel pollen and anise-scented taggiasche finished with a salt cured duck egg $18
- ;amdflnk’! Omg. Do not miss this. Beef carpaccio what?! Sign me up for another order! I loved this!
- This was duck prosciutto and it was beautiful. I’ve had duck prosciutto before which was excellent, but this was even better!
- The duck was lightly cured and not too salty so I could still taste the duck flavour.
- It was buttery and rich and melt in your mouth tender and it required very little chewing.
- Each piece was dotted with anise-scented taggiasche (olive) purée, house-made ricotta salata, and a tiny piece of pickled orange.
- The orange was a Bergamot orange which is a very fragrant orange that is a hybrid of orange and sweet lemon.
- Orange and duck are classic flavour combinations, but I wouldn’t have minded the orange as zest just so I would have it in more than one bite.
- The pickled orange was sweet and tangy with a subtle bitterness which I liked.
- I could still taste the duck under all the components which is most important.
- The house made ricotta salata was impressive and that with the olive purée was salty, but each was used and applied sparingly.
- I could have used more fennel pollen, which complemented the anise in the olive and the Bergamot orange preserve, but I appreciated the aromatics in the dish overall.
- The salt cured duck egg was such a brilliant addition and it was almost like a beef tartare meets a beef carpaccio, but with duck.
- The yolk was thick and viscous and the texture of gel and I think it was confit.
- The egg yolk was the “butter spread” for the crostini before I topped it with a slice of duck prosciutto.
- It was another decadent appetizer and every bite was one worth savouring.
The Anatra came with standard crostini.
**Parmigiana Di Melanzane – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- Preserved tomato and fried eggplant layered with bufala ricotta and burrata cheese $14
- This portion looks very large, but it was actually quite small.
- It is also excellent, so it might be worth ordering one per person.
- Everyone kept telling me how good this was and it is their signature appetizer so my expectations were set so high because of the hype.
- I thought it was excellent, but I was more in love with the duck prosciutto and the pasta courses to follow.
- That being said, you still must order this.
- This was a modern take on a traditional Eggplant Parmesan. It was Eggplant Parmesan 4.0.
- Think of a traditional Eggplant Parmesan, but having each component house made with the highest quality ingredients and the best it can be – now you have the Parmigiana Di Melanzane from Buca.
- The eggplant slices were thick, meaty and tender and very crisp and crunchy with a thin breadcrumb and parmesan cheese crust.
- In between each layer was house made bufala ricotta and house made burrata cheese.
- This house made burrata was different than the one I had served as an appetizer earlier on, but I preferred this one.
- The burrata was so fresh, creamy, rich and delicious and it added to the melt in your mouth quality of the overall dish.
- This burrata was reminiscent to the burrata I’m used to.
- Apparently the burrata is hand stretched and made with local pasteurized milk.
- It is mixed with tomato and basil and put in mozzarella water to soak and finished in olive oil.
- The house made bufala ricotta literally and figuratively added another layer of flavour.
- This was not buffalo mozzarella, but ricotta made from water buffalo milk.
- It was creamy and fresh with a mild flavour and I was so impressed they were making both cheeses in house.
- The tomato sauce was no standard tomato sauce – of course it wasn’t.
- The sauce was made from preserved roma tomatoes and it was a chunky, sweet and tart sauce with good acidity.
- The dish was divine hot or cold and every layer was well executed and labour intensive that I could only admire and enjoy it.
It’s been a while since I’ve had brains (my brother and I used to eat the brains from the heads of fried squab or chicken at Chinese restaurants) but I remember it was closest to bone marrow a bit smoother and firmer.