The Olympic Games are over and the stray dogs are once again free to roam the streets of Sochi with reckless abandon, but the corny Olympic-inspired similes are still flowing in full force. Stringing together a three-course symphony of simple Italian food is like a flawless figure skating programme. Every dish is in harmony with its predecessor and its successor, just like every jump fits in perfectly with the lift before it and the … twirly-thing after it. If Southern Italian cooking were an Olympic sport (and if nonna from Naples failed an anti-doping test), Fusaro’s would win gold.
After an altogether underwhelming lunch at Drake 150, I needed a consolation prize in the form of an epic dinner. Fusaro’s location on Richmond St. East delivered just that. The space had a clean yet whimsical design. Wood plank divider walls stood side by side with modern floor-to-ceiling windows. The window frames were connected by little football players on long rods, no doubt extracted from a disused foosball table repurposed by some hipster as a skinny jean closet. On the wall in the kitchen hung two clocks – one showing local time and the other showing Calabria time, a nod to the kitchen’s Southern focus.
After taking in the decor, my friend and I shifted our attention to the food, where it would stay for the remainder of the meal. The first plate quickly emerged, and it set the tone for the rest of the dinner: massive portions with no compromise on quality. We ordered a large salad ($7.25), and what came out was an entire farmer’s field on a plate topped with one of the best salad dressings I have ever tasted. Ever. It was wonderfully balanced – equal portions tangy, salty and sweet. It paired perfectly with the olives, crumbled feta and tomatoes that rounded out the dish, and, surprisingly, with the Italian syrah I had ordered ($8). The salad was so big that, despite sharing it with me, my dining partner – who has the appetite of a herd of cows – declared that he could already go home satisfied. Once we grazed our way to the bottom of the plate, we discovered a pool of dressing. We promptly ordered several rounds of bread to soak up every last drop of the heavenly ambrosia.
Our main dishes were no less orgasmic. My panino, simp(listical)ly named sette ($9.50), belonged in a dictionary as the picture beside the word “fresh”. It consisted of exactly four simple ingredients – tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy sausage and rapini – shoved in between hunks of baked wheat. The rapini was the unlikely star of the show – the chefs extracted more flavour from those stalks of green grass than I thought was humanly possible. Every bite of that sandwich was balanced. The texture of the grilled bread contrasted well with the soft, wilted rapini, the unctuous mozzarella and the coarsely meaty spicy sausage.
My friend, an Abruzzese villager at heart, was equally as impressed with the penne alla vodka ($11). The simple yet game-changing addition of arugula and pancetta added a dimension to that famous dish that elevated it beyond a simple Italian eatery staple. The portion was so generous that there was enough for a hearty main course and a pile of leftover sauce so big that it justified ordering yet more bread to sop it up.
Despite having consumed enough food to feed the entire Canadian men’s hockey team (post-gold medal performance), the perceptive server didn’t even have to finish the word “tiramisu” before I said (read: yelled) YES! Thankfully the villager was with me, because what came out would have been the entire night’s supply of tiramisu for any other restaurant. When I took my first bite, I slumped back in my chair and let out the deep, intensely lingering sigh of someone in dire need of a post-coital cigarette. Tiramisu like this I had not had since a Florentine friend of mine made a homemade version some months ago across the Pond. For Fusaro’s to meet and beat that standard was quite simply a feat of … wait for it… Olympic proportions. Best of all, the slab of espresso-soaked glory was a meagre $6.
Fittingly, we had ordered espressos ($1.75) with our dessert. Having already reviewed cafes in the area, I was eager to see how Fusaro’s stacked up. At this point, you astute readers will rightly assume that they probably nailed the coffee as well. They did indeed, but not because it was as complex as a 2000 Médoc or as smooth as a baby’s bottom. They nailed it simply because it was intensely Italian. Nothing more, nothing less – just so authentic that I felt, at that moment, as if I had been transported to the Roman sidewalk terrace where, almost 10 years ago, a plate of spaghetti al cacio e pepe and an espresso had single-handedly taught me the uncomplicated essence of real Italian food.
Not many places in Toronto can take me back to my Continental happy place, especially not during this prolonged polar vortex from hell. Fusaro’s managed to do it, and for this it earns an exceptional 4.11 out of 5 brown thumbs up.