In a cavernous, underground location down a clandestine alley off of King Street West, chef Rob Gentile has taken Buca from an ambitious Italian restaurant that opened behind schedule to mixed reviews in 2009, into a premier player on Toronto's restaurant circuit. A veteran of the McEwan restaurant group, chef Gentile's meticulous attention to detail has served him well in creating innovative odes to old country classics, breathing a rejuvenating and youthful aura into his discerning brand of Italian cookery.
Though we've always preferred the Joe Cocker version, the Beatles put it best when they wrote "With a little help from my friends". While Toronto rapidly clued in to the treasure they had on their hands, Buca grasped global gusto in 2011 following a little help in the form of a tweet from a friend of their own, chef and international food celebrity Jamie Oliver. The influx of enthusiasm following Oliver's endorsement proved to be partly responsible for our inability to snag a table on a spontaneous weekend trip down the 401 in early 2012. Our intent was to investigate a snowballing list of restaurants we were eager to visit, but Buca was one that evaded our fork. So when we returned to Toronto in 2013, a trip down chef Gentile's rabbit hole (Buca is Italian for hole) was at the top of our list.
Walking down the stairs into the main dining room, we noticed immediately how the tremendously high ceilings and brick walls were responsible for the volume of a young and smartly dressed crowd that at times, reached a relegated roar. A dimly lit, secondary dining room appeared reasonably more tranquil and intimate just beyond the glass enclosure where a vast assortment of diligently tagged meat from slabs of peppery speck to mammoth legs of water buffalo are displayed as they're left to cure.
Printed menus stamped with the day's date were inordinately long but impressive nonetheless. The wine list, almost exclusively Italian in origin, offers an ample selection by the glass. Before reaching a consensus on our order ,we had already been visited by three young, dark haired waiters in leather aprons, any of them easily capable of sweeping a yielding young lady off her feet with their charm and heavy Italian accents. Their knowledge of the menu was accomplished but their patience amidst a full service wavered at times.
Octopus Salami, Senape Yogurt, Smoked New Potato, Agretti - 14$
Diving head first into the deep end of Buca's creative cuisine, we fell in love with the octopus soppressata served with smoked and fried new potato, yogurt spiked with mustard oil, and a lightly salty, grassy tasting green called agretti who's English translation (saltwort) is immensely less appealing than it's flavor. Pleasantly gelatinous and delicately seasoned with pieces of octopus strewn throughout, the cased sausage was seemingly similar to headcheese in technique, though contrary to headcheese, we can't be certain it wasn't cased first and cooked second. The result once sliced was like stained glass, finessed with carefully selected garnishes. We reserve this type of adulation carefully because it risks losing it's impact otherwise, but this dish was truly a masterpiece.
Though the fried zucchini flowers stuffed with halibut and shrimp were served piping hot in a light batter without a trace of oil, they were distinctly less successful than we had hoped. Under seasoned and bland, the seafood filling lacked conviction. Timid but not deliberately so, the filling could've easily been anything else, if not for the fact that anything else would've likely been more assertive.
B.C Halibut & White Shrimp Stuffed Zucchini Flowers - 13$
Ravioli doppi are a brilliant, and labor intensive technique of compartmentalizing two different fillings within a single raviolo. In this case, the intensity of fresh heirloom tomato opposite a vibrant basil and goat cheese mousse. A bite of pasta mixed together with the wispy clouds of parmigiano espuma was like a caprese salad that detonated on your tongue like a flavor grenade.
Ravioli Doppi - 24$
On the other side of the spectrum from the ravioli was a robust and rugged, but equally delicious plate of bigoli. Made from duck egg yolks and hand extruded, it's a form of pasta that would be best described as bucatini without the hole in the center. The sharp edges of a tomato based duck offal ragu were rounded out by the addition of creamy, subtly sweet mascarpone cheese. A light undercurrent of warm spice like clove or nutmeg was perceptible but it was restrained, just enough to leave you wondering - and wanting more.
Bigoli, Duck Offal Ragu - 19$
Strawberry, Pistachio, Balsamic, Buffalo Mozzarella Panna Cotta - 14$
Our meal fell only a single dish short of perfection, a rare exploit. We left tremendously impressed, our appetites and expectations thoroughly satisfied though portions were objectively concise. A polished departure from the inherently convivial, family style nature of Italian cuisine is rarely as triumphant or refreshing, but the team at Buca makes it look effortless despite our cognizance to the contrary. If you're looking for a more casual experience with the same attention to detail be sure to visit newly opened Bar Buca just a few blocks away. After years of hard work and menu development, this highly anticipated and much buzzed about snack bar is now open for business from 7:00AM to 2:00AM, 7 days a week, serving coffee, cocktails, 3 meals a day and brunch on weekends.
604 King Street West