Home Away From Home

1 Jun

By Stephanie Dickison

Usually when we go out to eat, we are looking for everything we don’t have at home. Perhaps that’s gourmet ingredients, the time to cook and/or the desire to prepare a meal. And sometimes that means people that you can call family.

At La Bruschetta, people have been calling the Piantoni family their own for the last 25 years.

Located on St. Clair Avenue West, this homey yet fine-dining establishment makes some of the best Italian food in the city, but it is the people that you will come to see as much as the great fare.

Franca and Benito Piantoni have been cooking for friends and family at the restaurant for years, but health issues have made it difficult for them to be in the kitchen full-time, so beautiful daughter Silvia has taken over and sister Brenda helps out in the front. Two nephews also help out from time to time, but the staff totals about 13 and everyone helps out in every area.

Silvia and her Mom, Franca, invite me in for a tasting, and we sit in the kitchen. What fun. Although I have been reviewing restaurants for a while, this is a first. Their kitchen is a converted garage and while it is small, it is immaculate. So spotless in fact, that I fear that my mere presence will mar it – do I have cat hair all over me? Are my freshly lotioned hands going to smear the gleaming stainless steel?

Silvia and Franca could not be more welcoming and put me more at ease. Instantly, their kindness is like a blanket of warmth and although I’ve been in the kitchen for only 5 minutes, I feel like I’ve known them forever. We gab like old friends and suddenly, I feel like I’m home.

The girls tell me about how their whole extended family gets in on making homemade tomato sauce for the restaurant every August. They only use fresh, Ontario tomatoes from a couple of different farms. They bought 300 bushels last year, but they ran out so they bought 325 this year. Benito made a machine from scratch to press the tomatoes and I can attest to how fresh and lovely the sauce is.

And then there’s their homemade gnocchi. You won’t believe it until you’ve tried it. So light, like no other gnocchi you’ve had before. Silvia tells me how they roll out trays and trays of it and allow it to air dry. Everything here is made with great love, no matter how long it takes.

One of the things that you’ll learn about the restaurant quickly is that only new people order off the menu. Most regulars allow Silvia to create something for them, which she enjoys a great deal, and I can see why.

She makes me Shrimp Sambuca, which is not on the menu, but make sure to ask for it when you go. It is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. The recipe was developed by her sister Brenda, and it a hit with many customers.

I get to watch Silvia make it, which is exciting, and though it is incredibly easy to make – shrimp, olive oil, garlic, cream, Sambuca, etc. – it is one of those dishes that takes the freshest ingredients and a deft hand to make it turn out just so.

Silvia is a natural in the kitchen and is passionate about food. We talk while she flips the shrimp, the grey curly shapes quickly taking on the familiar pink hue.

She tells me that she loves to make fish and seafood, and that many of the customers still keep to a “Fish on Fridays” regimen.

She plates the plump shrimp in the creamy, fragrant sauce and although I have just met these people, I mop up every last bit. With my finger. You know how when you go home for a visit, it is okay to hang out in your pajamas? Well, with Franca and Silvia at my side, it was okay to use my finger.

She then makes me that beautiful homemade gnocchi with a tremendously rich and earthy mushroom sauce that makes me think of old world Italy, although I am British-Canadian and have never been abroad.

Using fresh oyster, porcini, cremini, champagne and Portobello mushrooms, she makes a paste adding brandy, white wine, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and a few other things that must remain a family secret. The sauce is fragrant and full-bodied and I feel almost intoxicated from the smell and taste. I feel a part of the earth and a part of Italy.

She asks if I would like to try the lobster-filled ravioli, and I am aching to, but I am full. I want to try the Carpaccio – veal marinated with olive oil, lemon and aged Parmigano, but I hold off. I ask for a tour of the restaurant to keep myself from eating my way through the kitchen.

Benito and Brenda arrive and just in time. They show me the second level that is open on Saturdays (they are that busy) and talk about the many engagements, weddings, baptisms, communions and confirmations that have taken place here.

Benito takes me into the entrance, where white plates line the walls, signed by celebrities that have made their way here – Tony Bennett, Sophia Loren (Benito swoons a little when he talks about Sophia; I swoon a little when he talks about Tony) and too many others to mention.

He wraps his arm around my shoulder and tells me about how the restaurant business has changed, but he and his family hasn’t. They just want to share good food with their friends and family (read: customers).

We hug and I head out into the night with my containers of food and fond memories of an evening well spent.

With friends and family.

La Bruschetta

1317 St. Clair West, at St. Clarens, Toronto 416-656-8622

Call for reservations, especially Friday and Saturday nights.


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