From under-the-radar to Michelin-recommended, Ardo is a Toronto treasure

Ardo gives diners a taste of the Sicilian coast with thoughtful seafood dishes and lots of feel-good, old-school hospitality. Mediterranean vacay, who?

When I got an email inviting me to Ardo, I admittedly hadn't heard of the Sicilian restaurant before. Therein lies the problem with dining in Toronto: If a restaurant isn't new or doesn't consistently top food media's "best of" lists, it can fly under your radar, and what a shame that would have been.

Ardo Restaurant: The vibe

When we arrive at the Old Town restaurant on King East, which opened in 2016 and was recommended by the Michelin Guide last year, we're greeted as if we're long-time regulars.

Dining room inside Ardo Toronto

The gregarious floor manager Alessandro shakes my hand (firm, but not too tight) and welcomes us into the intimate, candle-lit trattoria, where black and white family photographs hang on the walls — along with an impressive shelf of Italian and European wine that Alessandro catches me eyeing.

Therein lies the problem with dining in Toronto: If a restaurant isn't new or doesn't consistently top food media's "best of" lists, it can fly under your radar

En route to our table near the open kitchen, which teases us with wafts of fresh baked dough, I notice a pair of Sicilian ceramic heads, or “teste di moro," sitting on the shelves above the ocean-blue bar. I make a White Lotus joke — where I've seen these ominous-looking heads before. It doesn't land, but thankfully a tin of crunchy housemade sourdough does, right on our table with olive oil imported from Sicily. I don't dare ask for balsamic because the peppery, golden olive oil gets all of my attention, so does Ardo.

Ardo Restaurant Toronto | Olive oil imported from Sicily

Ardo Restaurant: The menu

Toronto is certainly not surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, but it's easy to play pretend with the quality of the seafood at Ardo. Chef-owner Roberto Marotta grew up on the northeastern coast of Sicily, and it shows. Dishes like the raw tuna carpaccio, so delicate and thinly sliced that you fear for the chef's fingers, give a pleasantly salty, refreshing taste of the coast — with a satisfying crunch from celery, capers and cucumber.

Ardo Restaurant Toronto | Tuna carpaccio

Our second spuntino (snack) was also from the sea: grilled octopus with marinated artichoke and celery leaf. The octopus was perfectly tender, not rubbery in the slightest, and subtly smoky. Although grilled artichoke can have a strong flavour, the dish was well-balanced. We mopped it all up using the juicy octopus as a squeegee for drizzles of green, herb-infused olive oil.

Ardo Restaurant Toronto | Grilled octopus

Ardo isn't shy about importing ingredients from Sicily, in fact, they're quite proud of their relationships with some of the finest Sicilian producers, whose products bring a little Italian sunshine to Canadian ingredients. Perhaps one of the best examples of this transatlantic partnership is in the gamberi pasta.

The plump Nova Scotia shrimp and jet-black squid ink conchiglie practically glisten with a sauce of Sicilian tomato paste and white wine, while chopped Sicilian pistachios add a rustic, slightly nutty pop of texture. It's, hands down, the most interesting pasta dish I've had in the city.

I (begrudgingly) shared the pasta, along with a crispy pan-seared Baffin Island turbot with mint and... "peaches?"

"Golden beets," Alessandro informed me, gently, but the peach doppelgängers were too good to bruise my ego, and sweeter than their earthy, red counterparts.

Ardo Restaurant: The pantry and the cellar

Hesitant to leave Ardo's untroubled world, we lingered over a chilled glass of minerally Sardinian vermentino and freshly made ricotta-filled cannoli (Alessandro thinks that cannoli left to sit out for hours is "a crime").

Ardo Restaurant Toronto | Cannoli

Ardo's by-the-glass wine list is on the smaller side, which I actually found to be a relief. There are about 4–5 selections each for red and white, which are reasonably priced in the $16–$17 range and mostly from Sicily (quelle surprise). The wines may taste complex but aren't overly complicated to understand or pair with your meal.

If you reallllyyy don't want to leave, you can take a piece of Ardo home with you via their pantry of Sicilian goods available for purchase. I've been rationing the Leonardo Marino X-Virgin Olive Oil since we left to remind me of Toronto's little slice of Sicily.  

Dinner and drinks for two: Around $175 before tax and tip

Ardo Restaurant, 243 King St. E., ardorestaurant.com

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