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Watch Stephanie Dickison on Slice TV!

12 Aug

Watch Stephanie in her role as Restaurant Critic on Slice TV’s “The List!

Click here and go to THE LIST – S2 Full Episodes

Click on Episode 24 – Part 4 (6:47 minutes)

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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.

Butter Fish

1 Jun

By Stephanie Dickison

Vacationing in Cape Cod when I was 8-10 changed my view of the world. It was filled with crustaceous creatures that fascinated me. Everywhere you went, there was something to do with seafood. Even if you were just stopping off at the salt water taffy stand, there was a tank of fish nearby or you had to squeeze past the fellas fishing off the bridge to get into the place.

And it is perhaps that early experience of stopping off at a hamburger stand with my folks and ordering a lobster roll, with the hot dog bun that’s sliced on top, with chunks of lobster, celery and parsley oozing out the top, that changed my life.

I became a seafood lover at a young age, not coincidentally during the years my Dad fished. He worked at a newspaper and needed some sort of relief from the pressures of working long hours and coming home to a wife and kid and the bills. So he started fishing.

It became a big part of his life and he shared it with me. We went to Canadian Tire and picked out the smallest little pole. I was thrilled! I was going to fish.

Over the years, my Dad taught me to bait the hook and how to pick out the best spots for catching bass, pike and perch. We went deep sea fishing off the coast in the States and puttered around Lake Ontario in our little battered boat. It was a significant part of my childhood, those years of sitting in the boat waiting for the hit.

I don’t remember catching all that many fish, except Sunfish, which are almost always too small to keep and have too many bones to be any good for eating. I do remember snagging the line in the weeds and Pa having to cut the line, losing an expensive lure. I remember sitting in the boat, eating a tomato and drinking pop and getting a wicked sunburn. And I remember having to paddle over to shore to pee in the bush (all that pop and tomatoes).

So it is with great excitement that Pa and I are here at The Fish Shak in Kensington Market. We so rarely have fish together anymore, opting for breakfast and coffees most Saturdays. But our usual haunts were closed or full, so it is just sheer luck that we happened upon this place.

A good friend had just told me how good the food was, though I didn’t need a recommendation. Anytime there is fish or seafood on the menu, that’s what I order, so to have a whole place dedicated to the sea, well, I was in the door like a shot before Pa even really had a chance to say anything.

Though the menu boasts a range of fish and organic fare, it is the butter fish that has me excited. I’ve never heard of it, and since I’m obsessed with making new food discoveries, I am fascinated.

We order butter fish sandwiches with pesto mayonnaise and avocado and organic Guatemalan coffee. While we wait, Pa and I look at the local art on the walls and discuss a book project that we are collaborating on while the meal is being prepared. It’s just like being back in the boat.

Our food arrives and the first thing that I notice is how small the fish it. They’re like little smelt, though they are golden thanks to the chef’s seasonings. I later read that they average only a few ounces, so I make a mental note that I will need a lot of them should I ever have the privilege to buy them.

The second is how soft and forgiving they are. Their buttery texture and softness is slightly overwhelming and is only a little relieved by watery coffee.

I start to think that this should be the fish that people who hate fish should try. This will change their minds. Pa and I finish our lunch (read: breakfast) and head out to search for other finds at the market.

On our way out, I casually ask our waitress if there is anywhere in the market that I can get butter fish (also known as dollarfish, Pacific pompano and pomfret) – after all, there is a fish market to the left of the restaurant as well as across the street (and that’s not even all of them). She says wait a minute and disappears into the back.

Two minutes later she emerges with a business card of the restaurant and says that the chef will sell it to me for $3.99/lb. Just call first. I swoon out of the restaurant like I have just been proposed to.

I later read online that it’s a high-fat fish. It doesn’t matter though. Because it’s been love at first sight and being fatty isn’t a deterrent. I have found my “sole” mate and there’s nothing you can say or do to stop me.

You Are What You Eat

29 May

By Stephanie Dickison

What you carry in your wallet can reveal a lot about your personality. Dipping into a friends medicine cabinet can tell you how high (or low) maintenance a person they are. Whether they are addicted to nasal spray or a mental flosser is immediately apparent. But nothing unveils a person’s true inner beast like a look into their fridge.

Like a litmus test, your fridge reveals parts of you heretofore previously unknown. Your penchant for dark chocolate late into the night or lactose intolerance is laid bare, but only for the owners of said fridge. It is rare that anyone else ever gets a glimpse.

That is, until now.

I decided that it was time to take the gloves off and really look at what people have on hand at a moments notice, with no chance to tidy or shop for more ingredients. What I found is astonishing.

Most people have crammed theirs full of stuff, but this does not immediately translate to being a home chef. And some of the sparsest fridges are the ones that are used the most – the owners use what they have on hand before stuffing it full with jars, bottles and bags of stuff.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote in An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life that she didn’t like the feeling that came with having just grocery shopped. She found it overwhelming and doesn’t completely relax until the family has had a chance to work through some of the items.

I can understand that. Because I like to do a big shop and then pick up odds and ends when needed, my fridge is either bursting with possibility and goodness or else 6 kinds of mustard and a forlorn little pear stare back at me.

So I asked people to send in pictures of their fridges – no retouching or rearranging allowed. I have also submitted a picture of my own fridge for your ridicule and judgment. Enjoy. (Click on pictures to enlarge them)

Just one thing – you have to match the picture with the person’s profession. Good luck. The answers will follow in a later entry.

A) A retired couple

B) Two writers

C) A senior computer technologist for a bank

D) An artist and her family

E) A television producer and actor/comedian