Voted Best Italian Restaurant in Toronto
Dine.TO Best of Toronto 2009 Annual Restaurant Awards
More than the sum of its parts Toronto Sun Review (September 2009)
I really, really liked L'unita, a restaurant that is a perfect example of something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Everything here is pretty darn good -- the food, the wine list, the service, the decor -- not outstanding, not write-home-to-the-old-country-remarkable, but good.
Yet the owners have skillfully managed to combine all these elements into a total package that is wonderful and works on every level.
Have you ever been to a restaurant that is so deliberately upscale that you immediately begin feeling like an inelegant clod who should just head back to the nearest roadhouse? Join the club. But L'unita has the exact opposite effect. It's chic and upscale in a comfortable and approachable way -- somehow, you begin to feel more elegant and sophisticated just by being there. Gleaming white tablecloths, candlelight and another glass of nebbiolo -- yes, of course, this is how I live everyday.
The decor is probably best described as rustic chic -- exposed brick, distressed oak floors, raw bulb lighting and an old work bench are juxtaposed against elegant touches like oversized mirrors and designer wallcoverings.
The menu treads some familiar ground for those making the rounds of Toronto's upscale Italian joints -- antipasti, pizza, pasta e risotto and secondi. Nothing you haven't seen before, but everything rendered with a skilled hand.
The basics are all here -- marinated olives ($4), bruschetta ($6) and the requisite charcuterie plate (a.ka. salumi board, $24) which includes a delicate Berkshire prosciutto that I could eat all night. Tired old caesar salad has new life breathed into it with focaccia crostini, white anchovy and bacon ($12), while sardine crostini ($13) fits the bill for those looking for something a little bit different.
Pizzas here ($16) are of the thin but toothsome variety, with five standard flavours. Pastas are a specialty -- some are house-made and not to be missed, including the delicate sweet pea and ricotta agnolotti with prosciutto ($23).
Mains include pan-seared pickerel ($23), braised beef shortribs ($27) and a good-sized bone-on striploin ($35) served Florentine style with garlic, rosemary and sage.
Desserts are yummy if a tad predictable ($7). The chocolate truffle cake bears no resemble to cake and every resemblance to what's found in the display counter at your local chocolate shop -- so rich that only the most serious chocoholic could make their way through it.
There's Something So Very Right About L'Unita...Alan Vernon Eye Weekly (March 2008)
There's something so very right about L'unita, and it's not just the food. Owners Sam Kalogiros and David Minicucci must have sprung from the womb with the hospitality gene, which comes in handy when you're a couple of budding restaurateurs. Not only do they remember how you like your cocktail (from three restaurants ago), but the duo bend over backwards to satisfy your every whim.
Enter the doors of their swank new Italian trattoria (in the former space at Ave and Dav in which Arlequin defined fine dining for decades), and you know their infusion of energetic yet refined vitality is as perfect as a lightly truffle-oiled risotto.
Edison bulbs dot with a candle-like sparkle; an atmosphere so textbook ideal, other restaurateurs can only dream to emulate: rustic wood tabletops, original brick walls and distressed English-cottage wallpaper perfect this picture of the traditional colliding with the modern.
By the time peppery gratis grissini (house-made bread sticks) arrive we are lightly buzzed on ambience alone. With its accompanying dip du jour (a mélange of eggplant and basil) we just know we're in for something superior.
Momentum picks up with the arrival of an osso bucco tortelloni ($17) bursting with sweet, gorgeously tender shank meat in a well-seasoned pool of veal broth and perhaps the best browned parmesan frico ever. A crispy, thin-crusted funghi pizza ($14) does nothing to slow our appetite. Though a slightly more exotic blend of mushrooms would be nice, a mound of chunky cremini mixed with molten fontina cheese and caramelized onions will have us back for seconds later.
Already impressed by Neigel (and a bit full: thankfully portion control is not one of this young chef's tropes), we see the Muskoka native climb to even more stellar heights with a plate of impossibly tender off-the-bone short ribs ($24) with the most delightful red-wine reduction that is sheer syrupy splendour. A slightly over-grilled and butterflied rock hen ($22) sports a nice smokiness, and a side of clever sweet-pepper and onion relish is as true a treat as a ridiculously inexpensive bowl of gorgonzola gnocchi ($5) that's worth loosening your belt for.
The repast comes to a close with a refreshing range of Italian desserts " no molten cakes or crème brûlés lurk in the offing. A dark chocolate espresso cake ($6), mounded with a cloud of whipped cream and two synapse-sparking chocolate covered espresso beans, is the essence of decadence. Cannoli ($6)? Perfect. Period.
Of course, even the best food can be diminished by poor service. But L'unita has that down, too. Neophytes the owners ain't when it comes to front-of-house duties. So it's no surprise that servers display a keen knowledge of the menu; napkins are unobtrusively replaced or lovingly folded as needed, and water glasses never stay empty long enough to notice.
Sotto Sotto watch out. It's a rare thing when two young guys who've never owned their own place get it so right the first time out. If it is, as they say, their lifelong dream, this is one we all hope they never wake up from.
Strangers In The Night...Communal Dining Toronto Life (November 2008)
The Mood: Part late night trattoria charm, part effortless East Village cool.
Upside: Cupid-like co-owner David Minicucci often seats diners in chemistry-promoting configurations (say, a group of guys across from a girls' night out quartet)
Downside: Sitting on a high stool style chair with your legs dangling like a toddler's, its hard to take a come-on serioiusly.
New Restaurant Enlivens Av and Dav...James Chatto Toronto Life (January 2008)
The little mirrors that were part of Arlequin's decor now hang beside the front window at L'Unità in a respectful homage to the previous tenant of 23 years. But the mourning stops there. Front-of-house veterans David Minicucci (Xacutti) and Sam Kalogiros (Ultra Supper Club) whip up a most convivial vibe"the new kid on the Av and Dav block has been party central since it opened in the fall. In the kitchen, chef Doug Neigel (Park Hyatt) offers “Italian cooking with a Canadian heart,” including an early favourite: perfect red wine risotto with a pesto-spiked marrow bone. This isn't the first place named for a Communist newspaper, but it's by far the most fun.
2.5 Stars...James Chatto Review Toronto Life (February 2008)
Youthful and ever-present owners David Minicucci (Nectar, Xacutti) and Sam Kalogiros (Ultra Supper Club) have cast a casual yet energetic vibe in the former Arlequin spot"antique mirrors on dramatically lit brick walls, a communal high-top table"perfectly calibrated to woo the Av and Dav crowd. Fascinating bargains from Italy (plus 20 Niagaran wines) work well with chef Doug Neigel's seasonal Italian dishes. A charcuterie plate repeats the international alliance, pairing luxe Italian prosciutto with Pingue's Niagaran bresaola and silky cured muskox. Peppery red wine risotto is perfectly al dente, contrasting nicely with the rich jelly of pesto-spiked bone marrow. Fritto misto brings squid and shrimp, as well as tastier rapini, zucchini and artichoke"all battered and deep-fried and set beside a garlicky red pepper salsa. Tortelloni envelops rich forked osso buco, served in a salty and intense sage-flavoured broth. Alberta lamb shank is simply delectable, the moist, tender meat falling from the bone, its braising vegetables reduced to a lightweight purée, the dish refreshed by a hank of finely julienne celeriac, fennel and horseradish. Moscato-poached pear dressed with zabaglione is typical of the simple but tempting dessert list. Friendly servers keep up with the demanding pace. Mains $16"$28.
L'Unità...Ten Best New Restaurants Toronto Life (April 2008)
or decades, Av and Dav has been a graveyard for restaurants. Now two experienced young managers, Sam Kalogiros (Ultra Supper Club) and David Minicucci (Xacutti), have laid that ghost to rest with L'Unità. Trusting their instincts, they've got the mood just right: warm lighting to flatter any complexion, music that swings from Sinatra to Dylan, and a convivial vibe around a communal high-top table. Annex boomers (some dressed to kill, others in jeans) are loving it: this place has found that elusive sweet spot where everyone feels comfortable. And then there's the food. Chef Doug Neigel (from the Park Hyatt) is cooking simple, hearty Italian but using local ingredients and a relaxed approach to tradition. Hence a celeriac and fennel salad with impossibly tender braised lamb shank (the best version of the dish I tasted all year). If you're not so hungry, there's plenty to delight, from a fritto misto of seafood and vegetables to a generous platter of mostly Canadian charcuterie to excellent cheeses. Wines are reasonably priced, with the best bargains brought in from southern Italy and Niagara. So many of our Italian restaurants are run by glum old men. This young team understands that energy, like smiling, is contagious.
by James Chatto
Authentic Italian with Local Flair Globe and Mail...Joanne Kates (December 2007)
Authentic Italian with local flair by JOANNE KATES December 22, 2007 I once took a cooking course in Italy with Giuliano Bugialli. One day, while we were stirring crema pasticceria in his kitchen in Florence, I made the mistake of suggesting that this glorious custard was inspired by France's crème pâtissière. Giuiliano flipped out. He began expounding on the origins of French gourmandizing and Italy's hegemony over all things gastronomical. "Our lady, Caterina de Medici, was married to a French king," he said, "and she was sent off to France to live there. Our lady had to teach them how to cook. Crema pasticceria is, of course, Italian in origin." Then he upbraided me (kindly) for not stirring it aggressively enough. Sure enough, it was the most silken pastry cream I had ever met. Why? Because the Italians stir it more. Which, despite my lifelong Francophilia, may be a metaphor for Italy's approach to cooking. They don't just cook food, they adore it. They revere ingredients with deep understanding of what the French call terroir. I once tried to order fish in a restaurant in Tuscany, in the hills just north of Siena, and the waiter, aghast, told me that they did not "import" fish. We were less than two hours' drive from the sea! The Italian approach is to find the purest, freshest local ingredients and to let them shine. Oddly enough, in Toronto, this most Italian of towns, there is precious little really good Italian cooking - which explains why it's so hard to get a table at L'Unita, which opened recently where Arlequin stood at Ave and Dav for 23 years. L'Unita's owners call it a neighbourhood restaurant, but les becs fins are flocking there - perhaps precisely because it is so unassuming and yet delectable. They have redone Arlequin splendidly: lots of exposed brick, Arlequin's antique mirrors in gilt frames, with the addition of huge Italian ad posters, naked filament light bulbs and some wannabe-Murano chandeliers. The menu reads beautifully: It's full of promise of local ingredients (pizza with Thunder Oak Ontario gouda), fealty to the seasons (sardine crostini with shaved fennel) and real Italiana (red-wine risotto with roasted marrow). And it schmecks as good as it reads. A poached egg sits pretty on fresh artichoke quarters with shaved parmigiano in light vinaigrette. Little sardines are placed on thin crostini with a small mountain of shaved fennel marinated in lemon. The acid in the lemon has "cooked" the fennel slightly (à la ceviche), which significantly mellows its flavour. Ribollita is hearty bean-and-tomato soup with rich flavour. Delicate house-made agnolotti filled with mushroom and sheep's milk cheese have flecks of sweet onion marmalade on top. That Thunder Oak gouda melts atop roasted autumn squash with sweet walnuts and sage, resulting in pizza that is seasonally appropriate, local, and yet a completely Italian idea. Order it with the whole-wheat crust. Mains are simple, straightforward and beautifully executed: Brick-pressed grilled chicken is moist, its flavour intensified by the pressing, its red onion relish a sweet/sour delight. But the red wine risotto Venetian style (for a mere 20 bucks!) says the most about L'Unita's kitchen. It's deceptively simple - risotto made with red wine, rosemary and onions. But careful technique has produced rice with al dente grains and sauce full of flavour. On the side is a marrow bone with a tiny spoon for scooping this unctuous forbidden fruit, and atop the marrow bone is pesto of garlic and parsley, to zing together the simple flavours. This is clean cooking and molto Italiano. There is one exceptional dessert: cannoli. One so rarely meets credible cannoli. Usually they've been filled in advance (often with canned whipped cream) and are thus soggy. These cannoli are thickish but fragile deep-fried crepes that have clearly been filled when we ordered them, with mascarpone and white chocolate lightened with whipped cream and studded with candied oranges. The marriage of uber-crisp crepes with the filling is surely the food of the angels. Both chefs, Doug Neigel and sous Chad Goudie, cooked at the Park Hyatt Hotel previously. The restaurant's owners, Sam Kalogiros and David Minicucci, worked variously at Ultra, Luce, Milagro, Xacutti and Lux. All of which just goes to show you: Take four young guys who've bounced around a bunch of restos and not necessarily distinguished themselves, give them a place to shine, and watch them sparkle. firstname.lastname@example.org