No California-clichéd Italian here

Formal dining is out; authenticity is in. The success of Rob Gentile’s Buca is a case in point.

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Rob Gentile wanted brains—a whole lot of them. To be exact, he wanted 800 little white ones plucked from the most innocent and unsuspecting lambs available, possessive of young, tender lobes as yet untoughened by disappointment or complicated thought. “They’re harvesting them for me now,” he told me calmly one recent afternoon in the kitchen of his downtown Toronto restaurant Buca—they being the myriad suppliers he was leaning on hard for the cause.

The thinking is that if you were to string all the little brains together and hook them up to even the smallest of watch batteries they would easily outpunch Sarah Palin thought for thought. But chef Gentile actually had something else in mind: sage, namely, and some minced rosemary, oregano, parsley and freshly ground pepper. First he will cut each brain in half and soak it in cold water to flush out the blood. Then each half-lobe will be embalmed in a blanket of prosciutto and fried crisp with a scattering of capers and foisted on the unwary public gathered at the Royal Ontario Museum on June 13 for a fundraiser called Toronto Taste.

Some who try it there will likely recognize this brainy saltimbocca from the menu at Buca, and a few of those will even have ordered it there (just $7!), and be happy to eat it again. Quite a few more will run for the hills—or at least for another less-threatening snack. For the fact is that despite their laudable enthusiasm for things culinary, Torontonians have a squeamish and largely unresolved attitude to offal that is not foie gras.

In short, they will happily drive two hours north to Singhampton, Ont., and eat a grilled duck gizzard at Eigensinn Farm because the revered chef Michael Stadtlander—once ranked in the top 50 in the world, don’t you know?—can tell them it came from a duck called Maggie who used to live in the pond outside. But when they get home they would never consider picking up a jar of gésiers en confit to keep on hand in the fridge for a snack, as people do in Montreal.

That is one of the reasons I like Gentile’s brains. Offal is rare on the Toronto menu, and the rich creaminess of that little piece of lamb offset by crisp and salty prosciutto makes a treasured exception. That said, it is not his signature dish; serving it at Toronto Taste is much more about seeking attention and making a point. But as I see it the point has already been made by virtue of Buca’s success. It is that in the ever-shifting grounds of restaurant trends, while formal fine dining as we knew it is on the wane, authenticity is very much in.

Buca is situated in Toronto’s club district, where food is less important than clothing and not expected to be challenging. But it can take weeks to get a table at Buca, where you will not find a single example of the aging California-influenced clichés that have littered Italian menus all over the rest of the town for decades. No grilled veal chop or penne with pesto and smoked chicken here. Instead you find ravioli stuffed with guinea hen and foie gras and sauced with emulsified butter and a drizzle of red-wine reduction, house-made salumi, crisp pigs’ ears with wild fennel and salt, and when you do come across something as mainstream as spaghetti alla carbonara, it is not made with bacon or pancetta, but as it should be—with guanciale, cured in house.

“The legs that my uncle did at the same time as these are already ready,” Gentile remarks, prodding a leg of prosciutto hanging in his salumi fridge. “This—this is going to take another four weeks, maybe six.”

The leg in question had previously belonged to a bigger Berkshire. The aging room plays host to a lot of other limbs, too: some once belonged to lamb, others to wild boar, some to pigs fed on whey. There is a liver-based salami hanging here, and another made from minced horsemeat. Most peculiar, a cheesecloth pouch packing duck egg yolks already hardened to the texture of Parmesan, and almost ready to be grated on a pizza dressed with dandelion and wild garlic. This is what Gentile grew up with.

“My family was always huge into food,” Gentile reveals, unsurprisingly.

Mix that tradition with a decade of finesse acquired in three successive restaurants owned by chef Mark McEwan and you get a very accomplished young chef. And good brains, too.

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