Visiting a new restaurant for Luso Life is always fun. I like to show up early to get a feel for the place before interviewing with the owner. As I sat at Caffino’s bar sipping on a glass of wine, I surveyed the room and tried to picture the owner—eclectic was the first word that came to mind. Hidden away in Toronto’s Liberty Village, the restaurant is carefully decorated with a wide variety of pieces from a different era—much like the building they occupy.
After a short wait I was greeted by Rosa and within seconds hugs were exchanged and we were talking about Italian family dinners and how she cherished the hours spent at the table eating, talking, drinking and eating some more—no mobile phones, no distractions. The conversation flowed from the history of Caffino to the beauty of Puglia, Italy.
I quickly realized Rosa was driven by passion—in 1996 she left a lucrative profession to open a restaurant. “I was a woman in construction. I used do architectural detail so I love buildings. Italy and New York were my inspirations to build here.” At the time, Liberty Village was at the beginning of a revitalization and The Carpet Factory offered the perfect location. In the centre of this 19th century complex sits the old pay office where employees would go punch their timecard and pickup their cheques. “Originally I just wanted the small pay office building to open an Italian bar that served sandwiches and charcuterie boards…then they offered me the warehouses which were attached. So I started dividing it up and now it’s a little bigger than I had intended.”
What makes Caffino more alluring is the fact it isn’t visible from the street—another inspiration Rosa brought from her days in New York. “In NY the nicest places were the ones that were’t advertised. Someone would tell you about a hip place down an alleyway—you had to be told where to go and that’s what I wanted here. Sitting in the courtyard, you look up and you don’t realize you’re in Toronto.” In the beginning, this worked against Caffino—lunch lineups started immediately since there weren’t any nice restaurants in the area, but dinner was a different story. “It was difficult to build up the evenings because my customers worked here, then went home—this was a bad neighbourhood 23 years ago…and the customers who came, tried to keep us their secret and I’d tell them to ‘please let the secret out!’”
Considering the restaurant’s eclectic mishmash of aesthetics, the menu is quite tame; traditional Italian, because why reinvent what’s already perfect? The pasta is made in-house with flour imported from Italy, steaks and fish are hand-cut then simply grilled and the ingredients are as local and fresh as possible. Pasta Caffino (Penne with grilled chicken, diced tomatoes and mushrooms in a light pesto cream sauce) is the signature dish and Rosa’s personal fave. “I love a bolognese or arrabbiata—real simple! Whatever you choose, you won’t leave hungry—we serve a good portion.”
I go to restaurants for an experience, not just food and believe that many people will concur that this is what makes a restaurant truly great.
What makes Caffino great? “We stand out because we don’t stand out. We’re tucked away, our entire staff is professional (no failed/aspiring actors) and the food is traditional. The biggest compliment you can give me is to sit in the restaurant or bar—it means you’re enjoying the aura.”
So I sat at the yellow kitchen table by the bar, Rosa brought me a second glass of wine alongside margherita pizza, I opened my MacBook and spent the next little while enjoying the aura and writing this article. What a wonderful world…
Caffino makes their spinach gnocchi in-house but you can use store-bought gnocchi for this recipe. If you’re making your own, Rosa offered up a few tips. “Use your favourite, add a spinach purée and remember to make them light and airy.”
Ontario lamb chops
Garlic (fresh and roasted)
Prepare the gnocchi.
Sauté rapini in the fresh herbs, fresh garlic, sea salt and olive oil.
Grill the seasoned lamb and set aside.
Plate the the dish.
Add the brown butter and roasted garlic and red wine to the rapini pan and reduce.