The Calm After The Storm – Finding Winter Comfort in Rigatoni & Smoked Pulled Chicken in Tomato Cream Sauce at La Vecchia

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The day I enjoyed this hot and delicious, soul-soothing dish of pasta at La Vecchia was a day of kerfluffles of epic proportions: it was the Monday after the ice storm.  24 hours after the city was cloaked in a sea of white and frozen water, knocked out of power left, right and centre and 2 days before Christmas.  And there I was taking 2 buses and the subway into town at the crack of dawn before daylight had even peeked out from the pitch-black sky.

I know.  I can hear the shrill “are you crazy?!” shrieks shouting at me in the distance.  But having a weekday off before Christmas was hard to come by and I just wanted to go out and do some blog work.  Beyond frustrated at the holidays being turned upside-down in more ways than one, I threw caution to the wind and headed out anyway.  I knew it was going to be messy.  But I did it anyway because I was fortunate enough to still have power in my home and able to exit my house and street for some fresh air so it just didn’t make any sense to waste a day if I wasn’t physically homebound, especially since there were specific things I wanted to accomplish on that particular Monday.

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So did I end up doing exactly what I set out to do?  Not exactly!  The power outage in many pockets of town definitely threw a wrench into the first part of my agenda (I bused northbound on Avenue Road, gaped at the wreckage and ghostliness out the window, mentally scrapped my plan and just stayed on the bus as it doubled back around at the end of the route!) so I shrugged it off and decided to sit down to lunch a little earlier at one of my favourite restaurants in the Yonge & Eglinton area, La Vecchia!

I enjoyed weekend brunch there so much during my first visit last March.  I promised myself I would go back for their salads, sandwiches, mains, pastas and of course, more weekend brunch and while it took awhile I finally made my way back and had a fabulous lunch to boot.  I haven’t done pasta justice on Ate by Ate so going to La Vecchia served two purposes: to get some scrumptious pasta in my belly and on the blog and to warm up with some really fantastic comfort food.  With snow and ice surrounding you from all sides, nothing else would do.

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La Vecchia’s lunch menu offers 8 different pasta dishes ($9 to $12) including penne in spicy tomato sauce with olives and scallions, linguini with shrimp, mussels and calamari, spaghettini with Italian sausage, mushrooms, peppers and onions and capellini with grilled chicken, olives and roasted red peppers.  After seeing my boyfriend have their amazing Rigatoni Romani during our first visit though, I knew without a doubt THAT was the dish I needed to have.

The Rigatoni Romani ($11) is served smothered in hot and creamy blush sauce (light cream tomato sauce) with smoked chicken, portobello mushrooms and lots of creamy, tangy goat cheese crumbles on top.  A bright crunchy leaf of radicchio adorned my heart-warming dish and my server graciously spooned some Parmesan cheese and cracked some fresh black pepper over top to complete the mouthwatering masterpiece.

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I admit, rigatoni wouldn’t normally be my first choice off the bat because long pasta noodles are the way to my pasta-loving heart.  My 3 favourite pastas are pappardelle, linguini and spaghetti.  However, that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t love all the others!  I simply don’t have them as often.  After this meal though, I thought to myself, “girl, you need to have more rigatoni in your life!”  Rigatoni is lovely for so many reasons.  The ridges and tubes catch every ounce of yummy sauce and its cylindrical shape is just plain fun.  It reminds me of childhood and shapes and all that fun stuff.

Anyway, I could write a novel on why I love this pasta dish so much.  It was so saucy, so creamy and so comforting.  And it stays hot!  As you dig through it, steam keeps escaping from the bottom up so you’re never left with cold pasta.  The sauce is super smooth and savoury, the rigatoni is cooked perfectly, the portobello mushrooms are juicy and meaty and the chicken?  Oh my goodness.  We’re not talking about plain old strips of chicken.  We’re talking smoked chicken that resembles pulled pork.  In tomato cream sauce.  Surrounded by cracked black pepper and goat cheese.  It is HEAVEN.  The chicken gets all nice and shredded as you’re eating it so you have this great texture to the dish that you wouldn’t have otherwise if was strips or pieces or even a cutlet.  It really plays up the warmth and comfort factor and it is so satisfyingly filling.

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We might think to ourselves that pasta dishes are easy enough to execute but it’s the little things and attention to detail that makes all the difference.  This wouldn’t be the star that it is if the pasta wasn’t cooked right, if the mushrooms were watery, and if the chicken was dry, tough and overcooked, things that could feasibly happen if it wasn’t executed properly.  But thankfully for me they got it spot on and I had a lunch to remember on one very memorable day of the year.

*****

La Vecchia is an Italian eatery that serves lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch (11am lunch Monday-Friday, 10:30am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Saturday, and 10am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Sunday).  They are located at 2405 Yonge Street on the east side of Yonge Street several blocks north of Eglinton by Broadway Ave. in the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood.  You can view their menus and contact info on their website HERE.

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The Weekend Brunch Series – Loving Prosciutto & Eggs Benny at La Vecchia at Yonge & Eglinton

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poached eggs benedict weekend brunch with prosciutto and arugula at La Vecchia

Thinly sliced meats, cubes and wedges of cheese, olives and tapenade, honey, mountains of arugula…good god, my mouth is watering just thinking about all of the scrumptious delights!  I think the month of April really changed me.  I’ve always loved things like cheese and crackers and cured meats (one of my favourite guilty pleasures is a herb and garlic cream cheese sandwich with thinly sliced German salami – YUM, YUM and YUM), but after going to dinner with coworkers at Obika Mozzarella Bar in Brookfield Place, having an amazing, wonderful dinner at Hockley Valley’s Cabin restaurant with my FBC friends during FBC 2013 and basically having enough cheese and charcuterie to last me two lifetimes during the month of April alone (I might as well be a walking cheese wedge), I have really begun to appreciate the artistry behind charcuterie platter creation.

I would always eat things in isolation; some cheese cubes on a toothpick at parties, some antipasto, a few slices of meat.  All enjoyable but never really together because, let’s face it, the nagging voices that sternly tell us to stay away from all that sodium will deter us from that fun.  But I am here to say that every so often, I DON’T CARE.  I definitely plan on paying much more attention to charcuterie platters from here on out and to indulge in one of my favourite charcuterie staples, prosciutto, when given the opportunity.  So when eggs benny with prosciutto stared at me in the face from the menu of one of my more recent weekend brunch meals at La Vecchia by Yonge & Eglinton, I had to take advantage!

La Vecchia weekend brunch menu in Yonge and Eglinton

La Vecchia weekend brunch menu in Yonge and Eglinton

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked past La Vecchia over the years.  Located on the east side of Yonge Street a few blocks north of Eglinton by Broadway Avenue, it’s sandwiched between so many different eateries, many of which I’ve visited on a regular basis.  But what set La Vecchia apart and what drew me to it in the first place is its ambience.  It exudes that feeling and atmosphere of old world Italy (historical but with plenty of character, and a quiet, easy-breezy sophistication and glamour) and when the patio is set up during the summer, it makes you feel so relaxed just walking by it.  It’s the type of place I feel I can truly soak in a dining experience.  The type of place that gives you more than just delicious food but also a delicious experience – sitting back and taking your time, savouring those bread and olive oil moments, sipping water as you people-watch; all those little details that make those meals so memorable and enjoyable.

La Vecchia dining room in Yonge and Eglinton

La Vecchia has a FABULOUS weekend brunch menu.  Not only do they offer plenty of savoury and sweet options, but they also offer plenty of choices within those options.  You never have to feel like you’re caged in when you’re perusing their menu.  Case in point: 7 frittatas, 6 egg (uova) breakfasts (benedicts, sunny side ups, poached, and style of your choice), 5 sweet brunches, a whole host of veg, salads, and antipasto, fresh focaccia sandwiches,  and – wait for this – 9 (nine!) pasta and risotto brunch dishes!  And lots and lots of yummy things like portobello mushrooms and grilled vegetables, sausage, cured meats, goat cheese, parmesan, bocconcini and Asiago, calamari, and so much more!

Prices are very brunch-typical, hovering around $11 or $12 for most mains and dishes with a few less expensive ones ($8 or $9) and a few more expensive ones ($14 to $16).  This menu makes me think of “Around the World in 80 Days” only more like “Around the Menu 80 Times” because of all the different types of dishes!

poached eggs benedict weekend brunch with prosciutto and arugula at La Vecchia

poached eggs benedict weekend brunch with prosciutto and arugula at La Vecchia

poached eggs benedict weekend brunch with prosciutto and arugula at La Vecchia

My brunch pick for my first visit to La Vecchia: the Semplice Uova (egg) breakfast ($12) featuring 2 poached eggs on a bed of juicy, thick slices of tomato and fluffy arugula topped with thinly sliced mouthwatering prosciutto with a side of home fries, diced roasted red pepper and fruit.  So many of the my favourite things rolled into one!  I love prosciutto and arugula like nobody’s business, the prosciutto imparted so much flavour in the dish, the runny yolks in the poached eggs (which, by the way, were perfectly runny and poached) gave the dish this great, thick, egg yolky “sauce” for me to dip my home fries and tomatoes in, and the fluffy arugula just soaked up every flavour around it, just like an English muffin would in a traditional eggs benny.  There was a great balance of flavours and textures (salty, juicy, starchy, runny, and crunchy) and I didn’t find the prosciutto to be overbearing or overpowering in the dish with its cured salty flavour.

poached eggs benedict weekend brunch with prosciutto and arugula at La Vecchia

I love poached eggs and eggs benny so much and it’s so much fun trying different combinations and variations.  We’re used to seeing the classics (the florentine, the peameal, and the smoked salmon) and while I love them, it’s awesome seeing different meat and veg combinations that also really speak to the Italian cuisine of the eatery.  You can bet I’ll be back to try some of the sweet brunch dishes (they have crepes with strawberries and chocolate sauce!) and their pasta – lots and lots of pasta!  La Vecchia is a fabulous weekend brunch spot and with spring finally here their open front windows and patio will make dining here even sweeter.

*****

La Vecchia is an Italian eatery that serves lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch 7 days a week (11am lunch Monday-Friday, 10:30am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Saturday, and 10am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Sunday).  They are located at 2405 Yonge Street on the east side of Yonge Street several blocks north of Eglinton by Broadway Ave. in the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood.  You can view their menus and contact info on their website HERE.

Grilled Zucchini, Fresh Arugula, & Amazing Pizza Crust – Eaton Centre’s Trattoria Mercatto, Part II!

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Calling all pizza lovers: Trattoria Mercatto, Toronto Eaton Centre’s resident Italian eatery and wine bar, is THE place to be!  I know we all have our favourite pizza takeout place.  The one we fall back on when we want to cozy up on the couch with the remote in front of the tv munching on pizza in our jammies or sweats.  But let me tell you, when you feel like dining out for the wood-fired oven goodness with some wine, a few good appetizers, and a sweet dessert to end the meal, you want the super good stuff and I am over the moon that I can say that Trattoria Mercatto has the stuff pizza dreams are made of.

You might be thinking, “wow, that’s quite the proclamation!”  After all, there are many places in the city that serve pizza.  I haven’t tried them all (and I don’t think I ever will!), but I have tried my fair share and I can tell when I’ve come across something average, something good, and something fan-freakin’-tastic.  I mean serious business.  When I eat food that is tripping over the line of amazing, it deserves several good hooplas and cartwheels and in this case, a very happy blog post!

This even takes me by surprise.  I’ve always been wary of restaurants in malls.  When I was in high school and university, my friends and I would go to them more so out of convenience than anything else.  And while I’ve never had anything awful, I’ve also never had anything memorable.  Mall restaurants conjure up feelings of bland, ho-hum, and ordinary.  There’s no excitement, no real creativity in it for me.  But I wanted to give Trattoria Mercatto a chance.  For starters, it’s located inside my favourite mall.  Second, it’s pretty, fresh, and airy on the inside with a nice outdoor patio overlooking the park by Dundas and Bay.  Third, my best friend had gone before me and reported back saying she enjoyed it so I knew it had to be good because I trust her judgment and between the two of us, she’s definitely more critical.  And finally, it’s Italian and I never say no to Italian.  Trattoria Mercatto hasn’t been a long-time fixture in the Eaton Centre, but it’s been there long enough to impress, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I caved and went.  And oh my god was this first visit one of the most terrific lunches ever.

Their regular daily menu is comprised of antipasti and salads (ricotta and Italian speck crostini, Sicilian fried cauliflower, beet and arugula salad with Italian burrata cheese), Italian panini sandwiches, (mortadella, prosciutto, artichoke pesto, fior di latte cheese), Italian cheese boards, lots of Italian pasta dishes (orecchiette, bucatini, ravioli, pappardelle, and more with sausages, cheeses, and vegetables), meat and fish, and the star of the show for me, pizzas!  Prices are around $14-$20 for entrees and pizzas, and $7-$11 for appetizers and salads.

I do love the regular menu but what I really love the most is how they have special weekly menu features and seasonal spotlights on different ingredients!  Each and every single week, Mercatto will make a post on their website indicating that week’s features and special menus and/or menu items.  Their site keeps everyone up-to-date on seasonal produce and ingredients, new dishes, and news and announcements.  I absolutely love checking up on their site once a week, just to see what types of dishes they’ve used special seasonal ingredients for and the approach they’re taking to menu creation.  There’s often a special entree and appetizer and sometimes a dessert and there’s always a seasonal focus.  For example, one of their weekly specials shined a spotlight on their buffalo meat, used in a pasta bolognese with bufala cheese milked from the same local farm animals.

Trattoria Mercatto at the Eaton Cente is also lovely to dine in.  There are bar tables closer to the front entrance and more intimate tables further in, surrounded by barrels and displays of wine and bottles and giant windows overlooking the park and patio.  It’s a serene setting that’s perfect for a weekend lunch out, fun group gathering, or a romantic dinner on the town.  I love it.  And I love their pizza.

Their pizza menu features 10 different kinds with lots of differents meats, cheese, and vegetables adorning each one: artichokes, black olives, spicy soppressata (Italian dry salami), cured Italian ham, basil, rapini, eggplant, goat cheese, mushrooms, pancetta, fennel sausage, and so much more.  I was debating between one of their paninis and the zucchini pizza ($15.50) and my craving for “dining out” pizza won over so zucchini it was!  The pizzas are the perfect size for a great-size meal for a single person (I am not ashamed to say that I polished my pizza off feeling awsome while my best friend, who can pack it in even better than I can, was full to bursting after hers!) and if I had to describe the size, I’d say the circumference is comparable to that of a floppy brimmed hat.

My zucchini pizza was bejeweled with grilled zucchini slices, caramelized red onion, smoked ricotta di bufala, tomato, and a huuuuge helping of fresh arugula.  I thought I had died and gone to pizza heaven.  OH.MY.GOD.  This pizza was so unbelivably scrumptious, delicious, and foodgasmic.  I kept murmuring, “this is so good!” between bites.  I couldn’t believe how amazing it was.  This is “I just want to inhale the whole thing because it’s so delicious” good.  Or “I don’t ever want to finish this pizza because I wan’t to savour every bite” good.  It wasn’t laden with grease and the ingredients weren’t sparsely sprinkled.  It was covered inch to inch and bursting with colour and flavour.  The cheese was warm and creamy, the onions and zucchini were so sweet in flavour, and the arugula?  I wish I had a whole extra bowl of it to sprinkle on.

What really pushed this pizza over the top for me though was the crust.  Let it be known that while I love pizza, I don’t give two cents about the crust.  Most of the time, I couldn’t care less about it.  I consider it as something that is just part of the pizza and, well, there.  It’s never captured my heart because often times it’s too chewy, too tough, too dry, too bland.  Their crust?  I inhaled it.  I didn’t even have second thoughts.  No, “hmm, maybe I’ll just leave this part on the side of my plate” or, “hmm, it’s a little tough, meh”.  I munched on every morsel of pizza, crust and body, like it was my last time eating awesome pizza.  The crust was so crispy, so airy and so darn good.  None of those negative aspects I mentioned above even entered this realm.  THAT is the true testament of a fab pizza: delicious from top to bottom.  And judging how much this experience made and makes me gush, I wouldn’t be surprised if their whole menu was wonderful from top to bottom as well.

*****

Trattoria Mercatto is located at 220 Yonge Street inside The Eaton Centre on the 3rd floor on the northern, Dundas Street end of the shopping centre.  They serve 3 other locations in Toronto under the Mercatto name (Bay & Adelaide, Toronto Street, and the Mars Discovery District on College Street).  They are open for both lunch and dinner 7 days a week (Monday-Saturday 11:30am-11pm, Sunday 12pm-9pm at the Eaton Centre location).  Click HERE to view their website with menus, upcoming events, catering, news, and more!  Stay tuned for tomorrow’s dessert post!

The Little Black Dress of Italian – A Menu of Wild Mushroom Crostini & Sicilian Muffaleta at Black Skirt, Part II

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*** (This is Part II of my 2-part post series on Black Skirt’s Italian and Sicilian meats, cheeses, antipasti, pasta, and more.  For Part I, click here! ***

While there are a number of fabulous Sicilian and Italian dishes to choose from in the menu, Black Skirt primarily has a focus on three things: cheeses, meats (marinated, cured, braised, and slow cooked), and pasta.  In addition to their dine-in, sitdown menu, Black Skirt offers a deli meat and cheese bar where people can go in and buy by the gram.  The list of meats and cheeses is HUGE and there are so many items that you just cannot get at your local supermarket.  Sure, they have meats and cheeses such as genoa salami, mortadella, provolone, and havarti, but they also have Italian piave, crotonese, soppressata, and pecorino.  If you don’t know which ones are cheeses and which ones are meats, I’ll let you have fun figuring that out!

Olives and antipasto such as grilled artichokes, sundried tomatoes, eggplant, and cherry hot peppers are also sold by the gram and off to the side are shelves of dry pantry items, pasta making tools, and other Sicilian specialities.  And thanks to my dear friend Andrea who is Italian, I learned this all from her!  The selection of  specialty grocery items reminds me of Fusaro’s Kitchen on Spadina and it’s here that you can find some really special things you wouldn’t normally be able to find at other places.

This focus on cheeses, cured meats and antipasto (and pasta) also extends into their dine-in menu: marinated octopus, anchovies, and mackerel, daily cured meat panini sandwiches, braised veal shank (classic osso buco), crostini with fontina cheese, fresh ricotta, shaved parmigiano reggiano, goat cheese, rigatoni, ravioli, spaghetti, and SO MUCH MORE.  Prices vary depending on the type of dish your ordering, but generally speaking, antipasti range from $4-$10.50 (with the exception of the large sharing platters), paninis from $10-$12, pastas from $10-$18, and dinner mains from $20-$27.

For my first Black Skirt Italian meal, I enjoyed a wild mushroom crostini antipasti and the muffaletta sandwich and I loved them both.  The wild mushroom crostini were served on three grilled breads with oyster, portobello, and cremini mushrooms with melted fontina cheese and the pairing of the two was fantastic.  The fontina cheese was so buttery and savoury with a slight nuttiness to it (a far cry from more mild cheeses like mozzarella) and it matched the intensity of the meaty, juicy portobellos and creminis perfectly.

I was really, really excited about the muffaletta though.  After seeing chef Stefano Faita make a muffaletta sandwich on his cooking show months ago, I was ecstatic to have an authentic Italian one.  Hailing from Sicily, the muffaletta is made with a giant round of crusty bread with a soft interior.  The top portion is cut off and the insides of the bread round are scooped out, thus making somewhat of a bread bowl.  Then, Italian meats, cheeses, olives, and marinated, pickled, and cured goodies are layered, spread, and added one after another until the entire round is filled.  The top portion that was cut off in the beginning is then placed back on top of the round and the sandwich is then sliced like a cake.  What results is a delightful sandwich with layers and layers of meats and cheese and olive goodness.

I don’t even like olives, but I love them in a muffaletta (and sometimes on pizza) and they added this wonderful briney, saltiness to it that gets completely soaked up and absorbed in the bread.  The muffaletta is amazing because you get so many different flavours ping ponging all over the place it all works because none of them compete and the bread acts as the blank canvas, soaking in the flavours and allowing fresh bites to come through your mouth after every bite.

Black Skirt’s muffaletta is made with a mix of mortadella, capocollo (both of which I’ve had from my local Italian bakery and deli), hot and sweet soppressata (Italian dry salami), provolone cheese, giardiniera (Italian pickled topping of peppers), and a sundried tomato and black olive tapenade paste.  Provolone is one of the best cheeses to have in a sandwich because it has this incredibly nutty, sharp taste to it that complements crusty bread and contrasts with cured, spicy meats.  It’s one of those amazing thick cheeses that holds up to anything (this stuff does not melt at the drop of a hat) which makes it perfect for meatier sandwiches like the muffaletta.  The muffaletta that you see in the photos is actually a half portion as I was sharing with my boyfriend, so really, a full portion is a big, half wheel sandwich with a green spring mix salad on the side.

This food experience has made me appreciate the subleties in Italian cuisine so much more and I’m even more excited now to explore this huge world of amazing food.  There are some real gems around the city that I’ve had my eye on for quite some time and Black Skirt was one of them.  I’m so happy that I enjoyed the food, menu, and feel of the space as much as I did and I can’t wait for my second time around.

*****

Black Skirt is located at 974 College Street in the west end of Toronto, in between Dufferin Street and Ossington Ave.  The Italian eatery is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10am-10pm.  Along with their permanent menu, Black Skirt offers a dinner menu for 5pm onward and daily specials every day including a daily soup, daily special Italian meat and cheese panini sandwiches, and pasta.