First Look: Queen West's new nonna-approved resto, Bar Altura
A homespun take on classic-meets-modern Italian fare
In a city not exactly begging for another modern Italian restaurant, Bar Altura has quietly crept onto the scene with something remarkably fresh––and we’re not just referring to the pasta.
The idea started off as a shared flight of fancy for its three owners: Marcello Tomarelli, Ricardo Chico, and Head Chef Marco Zandona. Tomarelli, who was raised in the central Italian city of Terracina, and Ricardo Chico had met working with Liberty Entertainment Group, opening up Cibo Wine Bar and Lavelle, both on King Street West. Marco Zandona, whose parents hail from Northern and Central Italy, respectively, came to Bar Altura by way of Via Allegro in Etobicoke.
“We’ve been brought up with Italian cooking our whole lives,” explained Tomarelli. “We have traditions in the family where our Nonna makes the homemade pasta on Sunday mornings with the sugo meat sauce, cooked for very long hours and very low temperatures.”
They opened Bar Altura in early June, by the hip corner of Queen and Portland, across the street from La Palette. With its big airy windows, prime for people-watching Queen Street passers-by, the space offers pared down elegance in subdued tones of grey and turquoise.
The menu reflects their classic-meets-contemporary sensibilities, including share-friendly appetizers: little balls of cantaloupe sit on an unmade bed of prosciutto dotted with balsamic vinegar; a simple spread of velvety lamb carpaccio is sprinkled with large, crispy flakes of salt and very little else.
LAMB SADDLE CARPACCIO (IMAGE: JESSICA WEI)
Every Italian menu in the world has acaprese salad, but but most salads don’t look like this one. Heirloom tomatoes are peeled, stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and pecorino, turned over and arranged artfully on a wide white plate, topped with sprigs of basil.
A CAPRESE SALAD WITH A SURPRISE (IMAGE: JESSICA WEI)
The agnolotti dal plin is a simple platter of porcini and ricotta agnolotti, served with asparagus and thyme butter sauce. Marco Zandona makes his pasta every morning on a large wooden board, where it is dusted with flour, kneaded with farm-fresh eggs (where the pasta gets its sunny yellow hue) and hand cut.
“It was very important to us to maintain the Italian cooking traditions,” said Tomarelli. “Marco still does his homemade pasta. He comes in, he cuts it on the wood board, doesn’t believe in expensive machinery. He does it like my nonna used to do when I was a child.”
AGNOLOTTI DAL PLIN (IMAGE: JESSICA WEI)
Now that the trio are out from under their respective corporate umbrellas and working towards one singular dream, there’s a real homespun quality to Bar Altura. Tomarelli told me that Ricardo Chico’s wife did the interior design, while they carried out the handiwork. The black and white photographs on the wall are of people they know doing arm gestures that each signify Italian expressions (the man who was photographed doing the outward flick of the wrist from under the chin, to signify “I don’t care,” was a plumber who happened to be working at the restaurant). The menu, also, reflects a market-forward approach to sourcing.
“We want to create dishes that are hard for a large restaurant group to maintain,” said Tomarelli. “For a smaller scale restaurant like this, we have more freedom to change our menu constantly and always keep customers excited.”
At the time of writing, they were serving sea bream, cheekily plated to resemble the noble white fish in some of its former glory, floating on its belly past a small island of grilled asparagus; destination: Flavourtown, Your Mouth.
ORATA SEA BREAM (IMAGE: JESSICA WEI)
Book-ending the meal is the choice of a zabaglione terrine, which is basically a roll cake filled with cream and delectably boozy fruits, and a melty, smooth espresso brûlée served in an espresso cup.
ZABAGLIONE TERRINE (IMAGE: JESSICA WEI)
Pair everything with a brilliantly blue Pasquale’s Daughter cocktail (made with cucumber, ginger and butterfly pea-infused vodka by mixologist Will Publow) and you’ve got all the ingredients for a perfect summer afternoon on Queen.
PASQUALE'S DAUGHTER COCKTAIL (IMAGE: JESSICA WEI)