Style scribe gives it the old College try
Russell Smith relives the past, revels in the present and finds plenty of literary inspiration in Toronto’s Little Italy
Bar Italia's patio is peaking.
It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and the incredibly mild, late-spring air has recently become infused with the aroma of olive oil, baking bread and expensive perfume.
An attractive plateful of spaghetti and meatballs breezes past in the hands of a handsome waiter who has introduced himself by name to each of his tables.
This is Toronto’s Little Italy in the year 2010. But like in any good page-turner, the past cannot be overlooked.
And so enter Russell Smith, acclaimed author, restaurant critic, style guru but for now just a Toronto guy locking up his bike, taking a seat in a sun-warmed chair and ordering himself a bottle of Stella.
He’s been 9-to-9ing it of late, promoting his latest novel, Girl Crazy, a fictitious boy-meets-the-wrong-girl account set primarily within the neighbourhood we’ve agreed to use as a meeting spot.
“There’s a scene in the book where [characters] Justin and Andrew are sitting on a College Street patio watching a parade of beautiful women go by. I pictured them sitting here.”
For those in the know, Smith is no stranger to the topic of beautiful women or of the surrounding neighbourhood. In fact, much of his written work — which often speaks to a man’s love for the female form — has been penned right here in Bar Italia over his favourite salmon salad with its bitter arugula leaves and lemon vinaigrette.
“When I was a student in the ’80s, we would come to Bar Italia. It was a really Italian café, a pool hall in the back, filled with old Italian men drinking red wine out of tumblers.
“By the time I moved to Little Italy in the ’90s the bar had moved next door and used to open up at 11 a.m. I would wait outside the doors at five to 11 every day with my laptop.”
A regular ever since, Smith reminisces about a time when Little Italy was just about to drop off a roller coaster’s edge toward gentrification. And complain as he did at the time, he couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement.
“The place next door [now the Riva Supper Lounge] tends to be a revolving door of restaurants. When I first hit a certain level of success in the ’90s, it was a place called Brasserie X, and I remember a few fantastically expensive parties there, dark, ceramic tile, two-storey red walls, a big chandelier. Jake Richler and Leanne Delap, Leah McLaren, Andrew Piper, Ceri Marsh, we felt we were all on the way up. There was copious quantities of champagne, and I won’t mention what else. I started to see high heels and makeup around here for the first time, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is kind of glamorous.’”
And like it or not, that’s the way it’s stayed. Little Italy of the now boasts some of the city’s fanciest properties, shops and, of course, eateries, and with the Taste of Little Italy Festival on the calendar for this month (June 18-20), Smith takes me to see a few of his favourites.
“I like being in College Street Bar. I like the big open windows to the street and the open atmosphere.”
“Then there’s Gatto Nero. It’s on a beautiful corner, the food is acceptable and reasonably priced. There’s a part in Girl Crazy where Justin takes [his love interest] Jenna out to College Street, and the bar they go to very much resembles Gatto Nero. He takes her there to impress her.”
As we stroll up and down the busy sidewalk, manoeuvring our way around pods of freshly manicured females and salt-and-pepper-haired gents, Smith points to the incomparable Café Diplomatico, standing proudly on the corner of College and Manning since 1968.
“The food there is inedible, but it’s got the biggest outdoor terrace, and there were many an afternoon spent sitting there and people watching.”
On the other hand, he remembers Pony Restaurant up the street for its “adventurous French food, small intimate old-world space and excellent service.”
But it isn’t all about the sit-down restaurant for this prolific personality. He’s quick to confess of harbouring a secret passion for a jam-packed beef burrito at ever-popular Mexican spot Burrito Boyz and loves to take out a provolone and roasted red pepper sandwich at Riviera Bakery.
We bookend our day by poking our heads into some of Little Italy’s most beloved purveyors of beats and back issues — Soundscapes and Balfour.
Flipping through a dog-eared paperback, Smith chooses his final words on the area confidently, as would any award-winning author of his genre.
“This neighbourhood is certainly sexy. There’s no doubt about it.”