Abruzzi’s Chef Dave Lamers and Manager Rob D’Amico share a glance and a smile as they talk about how quickly the past six years in business have flown by. And though the restaurant’s co-owners haven’t changed course since setting out on their original mission of serving up “Italian-inspired” cuisine, what has propelled the establishment forward is the way Lamers and D’Amico have spent careful time and attention stoking the flames of inspiration.
Each year the duo make a point to travel to a new destination, where they soak up information on new cooking techniques, culinary trends, and learn firsthand about the producers working at the point of origin for the ingredients and products that make their way to Abruzzi.
In previous years Lamers and D’Amico have visited New York, Dallas and Toronto (to name a few). In late 2016, they embarked on a trek to Tuscany, Italy, specifically the Chianti Classico Gusmè region. There they visited farms, wineries and restaurants — and experienced the exquisite delight of traveling through truffle season.
“We normally don’t go back to the same restaurant twice,” admits D’Amico. “But while we were away we went back to one place for the same dish — Tagallini with butter and white truffles — four times. If we were still in Tuscany, I’d have been there again,” he says with a laugh.
Beyond the truffles, the trip also fell over the grape harvest season, making it an ideal time to visit several wineries including Tolaini and Villa Sesta (both of which have wines proudly available on Abruzzi’s wine list) to learn about their vintage selections and the soil qualities of the region.
Now back on home turf, what D’Amico and Lamers learned has become well-employed at Abruzzi.
Approximately 70 per cent of the wine that comprises Abruzzi’s extensive list originates in Italy, with prices ranging from an affordable $35 to an indulgent $285 per bottle. The wines carried by the restaurant are not available through the LCBO and are specially imported; each supplier is individually selected for quality and pairability with Abruzzi’s menu items.
Armed with the knowledge gathered by the co-owners on their travels, the service staff are always eager to share the stories of the regions and producers with patrons.
It’s also worthwhile to note that the drink selection goes well beyond wine. Abruzzi boasts an expanded scotch list and a wide variety of local craft brewed beer from suppliers such as Muskoka Brewery and New Limburg Brewing Company.
And in the kitchen, Chef Lamers is constantly engaged in the process of creation. “Watching his mind work as he creates new features is like watching art in motion,” says D’Amico with a hint of awe. “The creativity that comes out shows all of his years of experience.”
At minimum, Abruzzi’s menu changes on a monthly basis and reflects the offerings of the season. However, guests may be surprised at any point to discover a fresh new feature.
Abruzzi has an extensive list of local and sustainable suppliers who regularly consult with Lamers, bringing by seasonal and surplus items that Chef and his staff members are quick to transform into a new feature item. “Local suppliers will bring items by all the time,” says Chef Lamers. “I never turn them away and it’s exciting to see what they bring.”
Describing his kitchen as “without hierarchy,” Chef Lamers says that he’ll never be found “in a big white hat.” Instead, he believes in promoting inclusion. At Abruzzi, young cooks are encouraged to take part in the process and to run with their ideas, and the resulting items are vetted during staff tasting sessions before being rolled out to the floor.
In 2017, the staff will have a new source of creativity to play with, as a curing meat chamber (installed in 2016) will have finalized its first round of curing. “The idea is that we will now be able to craft our own charcuterie on site,” says Chef Lamers.
Time will tell whether or not the charcuterie will become a staple. (Although it’s hard to imagine that it won’t!) If it does, it will join an esteemed hall of other signature dishes like the grilled octopus, served with arugula, green olives, green beans, grape tomatoes with romesco sauce and salsa verde; and the beef tenderloin, served with crispy potato gnocchi, mushrooms, arugula, red onion, Loco Fields organic green beans and a red wine jus.
In the winter months, guests can expect hearty dishes that make use of root vegetables and braised meats. While these ingredients may sound like a predictable turn for the season, it’s the surprising and delectable ways that they are transformed that is uniquely Abruzzi.
Also growing in popularity are several vegan and vegetarian options. Abruzzi’s menu is versatile and special requests and dietary restrictions, including gluten-free options, are easily accommodated.
One dish that has patrons buzzing is the cauliflower steak sous vide, which is seasoned with a special rub then seared until it’s caramelized, before being served with beluga lentils, roasted fennel, charred red onion, Brussels sprouts, fennel hot sauce, onion, thyme and white bean purée.
The list of local producers that the restaurant works with can be reviewed on the Abruzzi website. At the time of publication, the list includes Loco Fields, Everspring Farms, Your Local Butcher Shoppe, Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese, Organic Ocean, Blanbrook Bison Farm, Edesia Fine Foods and Arva Flour Mill.
If you’re looking for a location that infuses stories into Italian-inspired dishes, hosts a wine list for every palette, makes everything from scratch and believes that your experience is the restaurant’s raison d’être, you may consider giving Abruzzi a try.
119 King Street, London
Monday–Saturday: 11:30am ’til late