Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Strada 241


Strada 241's industrial digs (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)

For the Rubino brothers to open a pizzeria on Spadina is like Meryl Streep playing a walk-on. Like, why? Well, for one, Ame didn’t exactly end well. Their attempt at high-end ultra-modern Japanese and a sophisticated Asian bar met with recessionary times … and it closed.

But Guy and Michael Rubino (one out front and one in the kitchen) have a history of delivering fabulous food in ultra-elegant surroundings, with pizzazz to spare: Zoom, Luce, Rain and then Ame (which they did in partnership with club king Charles Khabouth).

Are their fingers still smarting from getting burned on Ame? Or perhaps their bank account. Maybe they simply couldn’t raise the millions — or the backer — to build another design statement. Or maybe they’re tired of the pressure that doing high end creates. Michael has had children, and Guy is doing a record with his band, Curtain Call. So they want a life.

Hence the pizzeria. On Spadina near Queen, in the land of pho and noodle shops, Strada 241 seems misplaced — at first glance. But the messaging becomes clear: we’re hip, we’re cool, but don’t expect too much. Not like before.

The space is magnificent, in a downscale kinda way: the old industrial building has double-height ceilings and huge fat old wooden posts. There are big black and white pics of Spadina of yesteryear and cheap oak tables (here it is again — low capital outlay = low risk). The front is a café with marble bars and hightops; the back is a dining room with a big open kitchen and many scurrying guys in black. Nice-looking guys. But it’s the smell that grabs you — charring, sweetish, edgy — like the Rubino brothers.

The smell comes from charred Caesar salad, a welcome remake of the classic. In lightly charring romaine and radicchio, to caramelize edges but not cook the lettuce, are they referencing the torched but raw delights of their Japanese period? For the salad is charming like beef tataki or torched tuna. Many chunks of guanciale (cured pig cheek) don’t exactly hurt.

Caesar salad (above) and seafood soup

Their seafood soup is classic southern Italiana; tomato-based with clams, mussels and shrimp, robust and simple. Same deal with linguine, which comes with a simple tomato sauce with a few nicely cooked clams. It won’t set any records, but methinks that was never their goal.

Then there’s the pizza — crust has great chew and good crisp skin. House fave is zia Rita (That’s auntie Rita to you) topped with tomato sauce, chili-kissed sausage fragments, good fresh mozzarella, roasted onions, parmigiano reggiano and a flurry of rapini tossed on before baking. It’s like Libretto without the noise and the lineups! And with better desserts: budino, in the now-cliché Mason jar, is saffron-scented, very fine custard topped with small chunks of olive oil cake and plump poached apricots.

So it appears that the Rubinos are crazy … like a fox. If you’re going to do a tried ’n’ true pizza pasta parlour, why not do it in Chinatown, where the nearest competition is a mile away and you stand out from your neighbours like a tapas bar on a burger strip?

Strada 241, 241 Spadina Ave., $70 Dinner for two

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.

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