When travellers reminisce about their most memorable dining experiences abroad, it is common to hear praises over the gems upon which they stumble while straying from the downtown tourist track. Having lived through this exact cliché during my recent sojourn in Milan, I am familiar with the thrill of accidentally discovering authenticity. Following a number of uninspired meals at overpriced Americanized tourist trap “ristoranti”. I finally got to experience the most delicious cliché imaginable; a meal with handmade artisan levains, pastas, and pizzas, and wines to compliment every flavour, all for a fraction of the prices I’d been paying and with triple the ambiance. This sought after experience can be found at Toscano’s, a family owned and operated pizzeria and bistro found off the beaten path on Oxford Street, right across from Fanshawe College. Toscano’s offers a great dining experience without facing downtown traffic, parking wars, or the event congestion that sometimes fills our streets.
As Bryan Lavery, eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large, mentioned in the last issue’s article, “Has ‘Artisan’ Lost Its Meaning?” the term artisan comes from the Italian artigiano. In a food world often driven by buzz words, Robert and Shannon Donati prove that artisanal food is alive and well in London, not by following trends, but by maintaining the quality and standards to which they have always subscribed. They have been in the business for 22 years, beginning with Little Rocky’s Pizzeria on Dundas, and have invariably held quality as their highest priority. Luckily for London’s diners, the couple denotes quality with old world methods, fresh ingredients, handmade products, and small batch production–the very definition of artisanal. In this truly family-run business, Robert’s 80-year-old mother even joins the kitchen crew on a regular basis to hand make their gnocchi, Nona style.
Shannon not only holds her post as co-owner/operator, she is also the restaurant’s skilled and dedicated pastry chef, beginning each day with from-scratch bread, pasta, and dessert preparation, only to switch gears and tend front of house for dinner service. Her desserts might seem familiar in description, but stand out amongst competitors in creativity, skill, and presentation. Items such as sticky toffee pudding, flourless chocolate cake, and tiramisu cheesecake recalibrate your impression of how these somewhat common items can and should taste. The same can be said of other menu items as well, all of which are mindfully developed and executed by the
restaurant’s Chef Dani Woods, assisted by Sous Chef Mike Kerslake. For example, the local beet salad featured during Londonlicious sells itself, with the spinach and goat’s cheese accompaniment garnished with candied pecans and dried cranberries. The orange-maple brulée dressing ties all of these compliments together with an unanticipated love tap to the taste buds. The savoury and sweet flavour notes perfectly support each other in this dish, as well as on the goat’s cheese and grape pizza. Another Londonlicious feature, worthy of the regular menu, the pizza’s sweet grapes, caramelized onions, and roasted garlic are countered by the salty goat’s cheese, crispy prosciutto, and specially sourced Galati mozzarella. This pizza is finished with a vincotto drizzle. Vincotto (cooked wine) is an artisanally produced, dark, sweet grape must reduction, which they get from Jill’s Table. The Galati cheese was specially chosen following a tour of the Windsor factory. Another family business, the Galati Cheese Company creates all-natural whole mozzarella as well as a selection of other cheeses. The tomatoes, which are picked and then packed within four hours, were specially selected as well. It is clear based on the team’s articulation of all aspects of the restaurant, from the menu to the DIY (though you would never know it) fine contemporary décor, that every minute detail is given serious contemplation before being settled upon.
Following training from Chef Steve James at the London Training Centre, Chef Dani (who happens to also be the girlfriend of Shannon and Robert’s son Andrew—it truly is a family affair) has fully embraced her passion in the kitchen. She thrives in creating features Thursday through Saturday, making vinaigrettes and sauces, and braising meats using only the right wines for the task. Robert explains “We give you the best quality we can for the fairest price.” Appetizers range in price from $4.50 to $12.00 and the individual mains don’t exceed $16.00. He asserts “We never cut corners and we always try to do better,” — words of a dedicated and passionate restaurateur.
Robert oversees every aspect of the 80-seat restaurant and takes care of much of the business side, but seems most at home working behind the bar. After introducing me to my new favourite red wine, an Argentinian malbec that is featured in their house-made sangria, he explained to me that they purchase through an agent as opposed to buying through the LCBO. This allows them to carry estate wines, of which only 10 to 15 000 cases are produced, all available by the glass. I enjoyed a grillo as recommended to me by our attentive server, Amy. The grillo is an Italian green grape varietal, which presents itself as a crowd pleaser. It is dry with medium acidity and would appeal to the riesling lover and the pinot grigio crowd alike. The beer drinker can expect to see Cracked Canoe, Rolling Rock, Hop City products, Moose Head, and the Italian Berretti. Fresh drink features are created in season, such as strawberry lemonade using Heeman’s strawberries, to be enjoyed on the spacious 24-seat patio, which opens in May.
As I swirled and sipped, I caught the sound of the blues playing through the speakers and enquired about the (spot on) choice in music. This was the influence of their children, Andrew, Rebecca, and Anthony, all of whom are very involved in the restaurant as well. Both boys take care of many of the odds and ends while Rebecca, a student, serves part time. Robert says, “We’re only scratching the surface here.” They plan to build a bright future for their children at the restaurant, setting them up to one day take over the family business. It’s a business worthy of London’s attention.
Toscano’s Pizzeria & Bistro
1579 Oxford Street, London
MONDAY – THURSDAY: 11:00 AM—10:00 PM
FRIDAY & SATURDAY: 11:00 AM—11:00 PM
Christie Massé is a Stratford Chef School graduate, a local chef, and food consultant. For any enquiries, call 519-494-1061.