Contrada is a neighbourhood spot for Italian eats and cocktails

New to Little Italy, Contrada is a charming Italian restaurant with a neighbourhood feel. Find pastas, pork chops and refreshing cocktails that strike a balance between bitter and sweet. 

Contrada restaurant in Toronto | Tuna carpaccio

Contrada: The vibe 

Only last year, when I visited this same location on the corner of College and Euclid in Little Italy, it was a gastropub. As it seems to be the way in this city, the old spot shuttered and a new Toronto restaurant popped up in its place before I could even notice — and I live in the neighbourhood. 

Stepping inside, I'm happy to see that a lot of the charming elements from the previous spot have remained. The exposed natural brick wall is still here, flanking the dining room opposite the large bar. White marble tables and bistro chairs still fill the space. Behind the bar, the large, semi-circular cut-out that once housed a mural of a tiger now sports a shiny mirror glinting back behind shelves of bottles and plants. The eccentric, patterned wallpaper has since been replaced by neutral greys, sleek wood panelling and wainscotting. It's a more polished look, but it still feels like a charming neighbourhood spot inside.

I'm also happy to see that for Tuesday night, the restaurant is busy with almost every table full in the front. 

Inside Contrada Italian restaurant in Toronto

Contrada: The menu 

I don't think I've ever seen beef crudo or tuna carpaccio on a menu — usually, it's the other way around. We order the tuna and it's definitely different, but in a good way. The cured B.C. albacore tuna reminds me of smoked salmon. The strong, fishy taste of raw tuna is replaced by a delicate, slightly earthy flavour. It's sliced very thin and almost falls apart as I scoop up a forkful with the zesty, creamy tonnato sauce; chicory; and capers. But when I get it into my mouth, all the flavours and textures blend together and it's sublime. 

The croquettes are another winner. The crunchy, savoury bites are full of melty, braised Ontario lamb served with a tangy caponata (a tomato and eggplant spread). The wedge salad is surprisingly spicy, comes loaded with dressing and is permeated by a strong mayonnaise-anchovy taste.

Contrada restaurant in Toronto | Sweetbreads

I have to admit, I've never tried sweetbreads before and I took the name literally. So when our server asks if I want to try it, I enthusiastically agree. After he leaves to put the order in, my Italian friend informs me that the dish, commonly eaten in Italy, is not, in fact, bread. When it arrives, it is sweet, however. The offal (specifically the thymus or pancreas) is slathered in a sweet, salty gravy and topped with wild mushrooms. If you aren't bothered by the texture, the flavours are pretty nice. 

Contrada restaurant in Toronto | Pork chop alla milanese
Contrada restaurant in Toronto | Ricotta gnocchi

When our mains arrive, they're more along the lines of what we were expecting. The ricotta gnocchi are pillowy but firm (I don't like when the dumplings are too mushy) and come in a tasty sauce. The ginormous, Ontario pasture-raised pork chop is so crispy on the outside and wonderfully tender inside. 

For dessert, the olive oil cake is perfection. Its crunchy exterior is contrasted by the velvety, moist (sorry) interior and the icing. It hits the spot with just the right amount of sweetness and a slight hint of salt. We're stuffed, but we keep eating more of the dreamy treat. 

Contrada restaurant in Toronto | Olive oil cake

Contrada: The drinks

We start the night with an easy-drinking glass of prosecco to warm us up for our meal. There are plenty of Italian wines available by the glass or bottle, but we opt for cocktails. In Italian fashion (think of the Aperol spritz), the drinks are refreshing and slightly bitter. The two cocktails served on tap are the aromatic, fresh and citrusy Contrada Spritz, and the Nitro Garibaldi, a pleasant balance of sweet and bitter with a refreshing hint of citrus. 

Contrada restaurant in Toronto | Rosso Malpelo cocktail with plates of food
Contrada restaurant Toronto | The Nitro Garibaldi cocktail

The Capetian, made with an interesting mix of vodka, Belle de Brillet, olive oil, celery and praline, is smooth with a strong aroma of olives followed by a nice warming sensation and no burn. When it arrives at the table, the orange Rosso Malpelo looks like a carrot with its big, leafy garnish — and that is one of the ingredients, along with Irish whisky, chili and lime. But it's made sweet with the addition of late-harvest riesling (likely icewine that didn't quite make the cut). 

If you're someone who prefers your drinks more on the boozy and bitter side while maintaining their balance, this cocktail menu is made for you. 

Dinner and drinks for two: around $130 before tax and tip.