Like a pair of non-identical twins, two of London’s favourite downtown eateries both share and differ in their ways. Both are Italian at heart. Both are fixtures in London’s downtown. Both have loyal followings. Both are marking their 20th anniversaries in the business.
Yet each took a different path to longevity: the stalwart La Casa staying the course with full-on traditional homemade Italian passion; Garlic’s of London, with its initial fixation on garlic that veered to local and farm-to-table.
Garlic’s of London
Garlic’s owner, Edin Pehilj (pronounced Aiden Pay-hill), started there as a part-time waiter in 1997 so he looks back with an insider’s perspective. “How did we get this far? We often discuss such things,” he says. Garlic’s made a noteworthy entrance to the London scene. Londoners proved ready to embrace garlic as a feature in pastas, pizzas and salads, and welcomed the emphasis on cooking from scratch.
“Twenty years later, we get Western [University] graduates returning with their families, people who played at the Grand Theatre over the years… even the woman who wrote the very first review of Garlic’s brought her family in during a recent visit from the United States.”
Of late, Chef Chad Stewart (half Italian himself) went from Fanshawe College’s culinary course to the London Hunt and Country Club, to Vancouver’s Raincity Grill, a well-known farm-to-table bistro, and back to Richmond Row to join Garlic’s as Sous Chef in 2010, and Chef as of last summer. “It’s still an Italian menu at heart, for people who are passionate about simple food.”
Garlic’s main departure came in 2006 with the shift to farm-to-table sourcing, and eating what is growing around us, to be more connected to the sources of our food. “We adopted the trend early because we believe it’s better in terms of health, the economy, and the environment,” says Pehilj. “As a child in Yugoslavia, it was perfectly natural that you eat what’s growing in the backyard, but it took two or three years for the public to really embrace that shift.”
“We have our perennials,” says Chef Stewart. “Our customers still come for the garlic parmesan frites or the garlic ice cream, but we cook from scratch and tweak the menu monthly, particularly the sides, according to what’s in season locally.”
“Taking ‘local’ further to farm-to-table keeps things interesting and fun. We use duck from Everspring Farms in Ilderton several ways because it’s so versatile, and elk for our pappardelle from Renecker’s Hillside Elk Farm near Stratford. Sous Chef Carla Cooper uses Arva Flours in her baking and desserts. We even put a couple of bee hives on the roof last summer and got a couple gallons of honey. We plan to expand with more hives this year.”
Pehilj attributes Garlic’s longevity to extensive planning and watching the bigger picture. “Variety on the menu, listening to customers, being on the floor and engaging with people personally, watching what they respond to, paying attention to details. But also engaging in local events in the downtown, making sure we’re part of the city’s makeup,” he says. “The downtown should be a place for people to come, relax and spend time, not just drive in and out.”
As for perspective earned over the past two decades, is there something Pehilj wishes the public understood better? “Yes, that serving is a real career, not just something we’re doing until something better comes along. We think of what we do as a profession — that’s something Emma [Pratt, Guest Relations Manager] and I look for when we’re recruiting staff.”
Garlic’s of London
481 Richmond Street, London
Sunday & Monday: 11am–9pm
Friday & Saturday: 11am–12am
Sunday Brunch: 11am–2pm
Syl Basacco had big expectations after partnering at a local pizza place, Il Piccolo Ristorante (now The Only On King). It took two years to gut and renovate his location further down King Street at Talbot. But with his mother’s recipes and help, La Casa quickly built a loyal following and Syl expanded several years later with the more upscale Black Trumpet on Richmond Row.
Syl’s three siblings were destined to become hands-on restaurateurs. “We had a shaky period when Syl passed away [in 2003],” says Nino Basacco, a retired teacher. “Rocco and I took La Casa and Linda [D’Andrea] took the Black Trumpet. We were all teachers so we didn’t know what we were doing, but we all had to step in. Washing dishes, wiping tables, mopping floors, we did it all. I was the cleaning guy for two years, so it wasn’t exactly romantic. But we got through a steep learning curve and we’re still here.”
At 86, their mother, Maria Angela, still brings in the occasional tray of her legendary lasagna. “We make additions but her signature dishes are as good as the first day. And we’ve had two outstanding chefs in Bob Murphy and Scott Sanderson — you don’t get anywhere without that.”
Theme and Variations
Chef Sanderson blazed a similar path to Garlic’s Chef Stewart: Fanshawe, London Hunt Club, Vancouver, and back to La Casa six years ago. “We alter the menu every month or two, but our long-time customers still order the lobster tagliatelle from 15 years ago, or veal piccata which has never actually been on the menu.”
Rather than being bothered, Sanderson enjoys the special requests. “It’s another way we go out of our way for customers. Some of the fish tacos I make for the staff make their way out to the tables, and some regulars know that I keep a stash of special rib-eyes in the back.”
Emphasizing consistency and home recipes, the pastas are all made in-house, including the venison-stuffed gnocchi. “We do some of our own charcuterie, like pancetta, our own smoking, baking and desserts. Apparently the sourdough starter is 20 years old now.”
To celebrate two decades, La Casa reprised the original menu and prices for two nights, by invitation. “It was fun for our longtime customers and raised a couple thousand dollars for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Community Living London, so it was fun for everyone,” says Nino.
“It’s strange to think we’re 11 years in to Syl’s nine, but as long as the Basacco name is on it, we’ll keep providing the best food and service we can.”
La Casa Ristorante
117 King Street, London
David Hicks is a Stratford writer and branding consultant. His favourite Italian dish is his wife’s pressure cooker risotto with chorizo, peppers and kale.