Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Vita Sociale
By Joanne Kates
Vita Sociale puts the focus on fun food, moving far away from Centro’s fine dining past (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)
Downtown has finally come uptown. Close your eyes, click your heels three times and you could be dining at Buca. Only it’ll be cheaper at Vita Sociale because when owner Armando Mano abandoned Centro earlier this year, he got really smart. Fine dining is so ’90s. The people want (in this order) inexpensive food, they want it to be Italian and they want hot young wait staff.
Armando did it. He did it so brilliantly well that, when I walked in recently on a Tuesday at 8:15, we waited 20 minutes for a table. So reserve. Although it wasn’t too painful sitting at the bar with the big TV screen and the beautiful bartender. Yes, that’s what Centro has turned into. Dish towels have replaced fine napery; they took the room down a few notches, added brick on the walls, plain black iron chandeliers, the requisite wall of preserves — and friendly prices.
But mourn ye not, oh foodies of North Toronto, for Vita is a pizza ’n’ pasta parlour with impeccable taste. Everybody’s got caprese salad on the menu. Usually the mozzarella has the consistency and flavour of a golf ball, and ditto the tomatoes. Vita chef Symon Abad makes his own mozzarella (soft, sweet/salty, dangerously delicious) and pairs it with fab heirloom tomatoes and eensy sweet/sour balls of balsamic (also house-made, some crazy alchemy involving agar gelling agent). His duck prosciutto and warmed upscale olives make the salumi board fun.
Snazzy Neapolitan pizza (90 seconds in a 900°F oven) is all the rage, so these guys chose the road less travelled: Roman pizza: Same cooking method as Neapolitan pizza but the crust is thinner and crisper. More than fine by me. The toppings are mostly traditional and wonderful, but the iconoclastic one gets my love: Chef brines veal brisket, then cooks it sous vide and then smokes it. Try that on pizza (with vin cotto for sweet and pesto for bite) if it’s fun you’re craving. Or jazz up your life with a hit of bottarga (salted cured fish roe), shaved on linguine with lemon and bread crumbs. Chef retails big flavours. Orechiette are jazzed with anchovy and rapini for salt and bite. KD for sophisticates.
Then there is porchetta, another urban cliché of the millennium. But such porchetta! Chef wraps pork loin with crispy pork belly and serves it on a wooden board with a charming bouquet of vegetables. Vegetables! Not normally part of the porchetta equation, and such a relief to have them on the cool wooden board with the pig fat. As with the fine-flavoured Romano beans, tomatoes and rapini with huge moist scallops. At least there’s something healthy there.
A calculation that oughtn’t to determine one’s dessert decision, because on the sweets, too, Vita has reinvented the wheel. Yah, budinos are a dime a dozen these days. So they make it with white instead of dark chocolate, and it’s a river of silk, deep, rich and intense.
For something a little lower octane, they do a salted caramel cheesecake that is both light and entertaining.
This is fun food, with nobody taking themselves too seriously. That Vita Sociale should rise from the ashes of Centro puts another nail in the coffin of fine dining in Toronto. Aside from the one or two nights a year when we put on the ritz for a special occasion, we Hogtown foodies have lost interest in fine dining, and we no longer shell out for it. Vita is the proof that casual hipster eating 1) can happen north of Eglinton, and 2) can occur in comfort and with wait staff who get what it means to be in the hospitality business.
Vita Sociale, 2472 Yonge St., $100 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.