A while ago I wrote in Slow (07/2002) that Canadian cuisine is essentially fusion and that Canada is less of a melting pot than it is one long and glorious smorgasbord of ethnic tradition. I observed that we Canadians taste the world on our own terms, and with ingredients whose origins are hidden in ancient lands and which we now claim as our own; that most of our foods and even cooking methods have come from somewhere else thus creating a multi-coloured, multi-cultural dining experience.
In March this hypothesis was borne out in a totally unexpected dining experience which, to me, symbolises the quintessential new urbanity of Canada.
A friend and I were going to a concert. This was no ordinary concert … it was to be spectacular. He had come upon the tickets at the last minute and I was put in charge of finding a good place to eat beforehand. How difficult could that be? After all, this was Toronto, Canada’s largest urban centre. But what began as something that I, a gal from the countryside, perceived to be an easy task, turned out to be a serious challenge.
I soon became a woman with a mission. In less than two hours I’d scoured the guidebooks and struck out! Then I turned to my friends. Having polled three of the city’s top food writers about the area near the recital hall with absolutely no luck, I called a French restaurant that one of my culinary buddies had seen on his ‘way past’. It was fully booked but according to the owner, “There’s an Italian place across the road that’s under new management…why don’t you try them?” So, sight unseen, with only four hours before the concert, I called and made a reservation — then crossed all my fingers.
Antipasti is a restaurant that is on no Toronto food writer’s radar screen. It is up the main thoroughfare of the city stuffed into a small strip plaza, one of those nasty, no- name sorts of places that line Yonge Street in the borough of North York. And it was indeed under new management. To put it into further context for those who don’t know Toronto, it seems that the really sexy restaurants all have to situate themselves downtown. Antipasti is in what urbanites often consider to be a gastronomic no-man’s land.
When I arrived I noted that the sign was missing a letter. The front patio still had the gruesome remnants of winter and it was beginning to rain. I quietly cursed. Not a good start. Opening the door and shaking off my umbrella, I was greeted by the host who ushered me through a dark dining room (one that had yet to be spiffed up) into a brighter, more open room with bottles of Italian wine gracing the walls and a big wood-fired pizza oven in full view. Things were starting to become hopeful and the place did smell good … really good.
I began to relax and started to realize that although this was called an Italian restaurant, the host didn’t look very Italian. In fact, what I’d stumbled upon was an ode to our new Canadian reality. An Italian restaurant run by a Sri Lankan, Ruban Vettivel and an Iranian, Vali Navid, who’d learned his marvellous seafood cookery skills in the top Portuguese restaurant in the city Chiado (and yes, its downtown!). The fusion of ethnicity continued flowing onto the menu which was brought to me by a Polish server. By the time my concert-going buddy arrived, it was beginning to become clear just what an unpolished gem I’d un-earthed.
While there were ample Italian dishes on the menu, the main page featured a cooking method in a beaten copper pot dish they called a ‘pentola’, but which had to be purchased in an East Indian store. The shiny elegant vessels were filled with superbly fresh seafood, onions, garlic and saffron broth, then covered and baked in the pizza oven, an obvious, if distant culinary cousin to the Portuguese ‘cataplana’, which finds its origins deep in Moorish history. Vali made fresh pasta and feather-light gnocchi that any Italian chef would take pride in. The semolina flour for the pasta was from Saskatchewan, the tomatoes for the sauces were from Leamington, Ontario; the seafood was largely from Canada’s east coast.
Antipasti is typical of the Canadian story. Uprisings, revolts, poverty and wars have blessed Canada with immigrants who understand hard work and bring priceless culinary diversity. Latvians, Croatians, Mennonites, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Italians, Chinese … even the Irish. The list is almost as long as nations on earth. The wars in Sri Lanka and Iran caused this pair to leave. While they loved their homelands, like many of the rest of us, they’ll never likely return. And Canada is the richer for it.
What I found at Antipasti was the most genuine hospitality I’ve experienced in any restaurant in ages and food that was fresh and honest. Only pure dumb luck or a food-loving angel on my shoulder caused me to stumble upon it. These folks have no press agents; there are no stars on the door and the renovations continue. But they do have passion and both Ruban and Vali know the immeasurable value of a smile.
Oh yes, the music afterwards was indeed spectacular!
Anita Stewart is the author of the award winning Flavours of Canada (Raincoast 2000), holds the only Masters of Arts in Gastronomy in Canada and was recently awarded an honorary designation of Professional Agrologist (P.Ag.Hon) by the Ontario Institute of Agrologists for her ‘outstanding work in the support of Ontario agriculture’. She has been on the Jury for the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity since 1999 and is listed on the faculty of University of Gastronomic Sciences.
4918 Yonge Street,
North York, Ontario M2N 5N5
Tel: 416 250 8728