Toronto is no stranger to Italian restaurants. Many have stood the test of time (even by T.O. standards) and many have not. This begs the question, how does the new Italian kid on the block stand out?
Back in 2009, Janet Zuccarini asked herself that very question when she purchased a dilapidated 1950s-era auto body shop on Portland Street. “It took me until 2012 to open; it was a big project,” says the CEO and owner of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group. In case it’s not obvious by now, the “it” she is referring to is the beloved Gusto 101.
“King West was on the cusp of turning into a bustling neighbourhood, but it wasn’t quite there yet. I wanted to build a neighbourhood restaurant that would be a fixture, and an extension of people’s kitchens,” she explains.
Zuccarini kept the spirit of the old auto body shop by preserving the original beams and cinder blocks, and incorporated modern touches like that eye-catching (unless you’re a bird) retractable glass rooftop.
“The demographic is quite young, so I wanted it to be this good value restaurant with a buzzy vibe.” Nearly a decade later, it’s safe to say Gusto 101 has become exactly that — the dollar-an-ounce wine may have had something to do with it.
“We were the first to have wine-on-tap in Ontario. Then I had this marketing idea that hit me literally in the middle of the night: What if we sold it at a buck-an-ounce? Nobody was doing that. My friend is our winemaker and we do it in-house. We had lineups out the door when we first opened,” Zuccarini recalls.
The vibe may be buzzy, but there is a warmth and homemade comfort to the dishes. It’s what keeps the lineups coming. “People come back to restaurants that have soul,” says Zuccarini. And everyone from thirsty, paycheque-to-paycheque millennials to Michelle Obama and Martin Scorsese have walked through those garage doors to experience the Gusto effect for themselves.
In no other dish is this effect more prevalent than in the Cavolo Nero, a.k.a. the kale salad. Before you go thinking that no good story ever started with a salad (which is mostly true), this small plate of greens has defied all the odds.
“I brought the kale salad to Toronto in 2010. No one had it on their menu. In fact, someone took it off our menu because people weren’t buying it. And I was like, ‘Listen, it’s because no one knows what kale is, put it back on the menu.’ And today we sell 60,000 kale salads a year. It’s one of our best-selling items.”
Zuccarini credits this success to constantly looking around and ahead. “I do a lot of travelling, I dine out, I see things. I saw the wine-on-tap in California. I was in the Hudson Valley in New York State and I had a kale salad and was like ‘What is this? I gotta bring this [to Toronto].’ We keep moving forward to stay relevant but also keep the classics. I think it’s a fine balance.” Gusto makes it look effortless. Zuccarini continues: “The restaurant was supposed to be easy. Gusto means ‘tasty.’ And that’s all I was trying to deliver: a tasty neighbourhood restaurant.”
“It’s just really classic with olive oil and rosemary. I was trained in Naples, Italy to make pizza and focaccia at the AVPN (The True Neapolitan Pizza Association), which is where everyone gets certified. I sent my executive chef there (I send people occasionally to Naples to get their certification). The focaccia is done in a very classic way with double zero flour imported from Italy — very simple. I just love it. I don’t like focaccia any other way but olive oil and rosemary.”
Mafalde ai Funghi
“Mafalde means ‘miscut’ or ‘done badly’ so ‘pasta cut badly.’ It’s a rough, ribbon-cut pasta. Every item that we’re talking about has a lot of umami. And what I know from creating a menu is that the umami items sell the most. Mushrooms are umami — things that have a meat-like flavour. So it’s got all these rich, earthy wild mushrooms, a bit of truffle cream and the pecorino romano cheese. You put all of those things together and it becomes addictive. It’s our top-selling item. It’s a decadent dish that has a life of its own, honestly. The popularity of that item has been ridiculous.”
“This is the perfect umami dish. You have a little bit of bitterness from the lacinato kale. I love lacinato or Tuscan kale because it’s a flat leaf, not curly. It’s done in a chiffonade, so it’s thinly sliced to break up the kale. Then you’ve got grated pecorino cheese and these currants called zante currants, which are really special and give it some sweetness. The toasted pine nuts give it some crunch and creaminess. It’s an umami bomb and that’s why it’s so addictive. It’s the best salad I’ve ever had in my life.”
“This is very thinly sliced beef. It also has pecorino cheese. I love the sharpness and the saltiness of pecorino to cut the richness of the beef. It’s got cured egg and a mushroom conserva — almost like a mushroom jam for some sweetness — and chives. It’s very balanced and super umami. It’s got fattiness, richness, saltiness, sweetness and a little bit of heat. It’s a pet peeve of mine when the meat is not sliced consistently. It takes great knife skills.”
“There are so many flavours here. We use San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce, and it’s got smoked provolone cheese. It’s topped with spicy sun-dried tomato pesto, Calabrese spicy salami and roasted peppers. I love spice, I’m all about it. So you’ve got spicy, sweet and that smokiness, then it’s cooked in a stone pizza oven. This evolved over time. We didn’t originally use the smoked provolone or the spicy pesto. But we were like, ‘let’s do this, maybe it will be fun.’”
Gusto 101, 101 Portland St.; gusto101.com