Vv Magazine got the exclusive first look at new Fort York restaurant, Città. Read more for Nicki Laborie‘s interview with the brains behind the bites…
Città (pronounced Chi-tah!), the long-awaited Fort York restaurant whose name means “city” in Italian, officially opened its doors last night, December 17, for all to discover. Located kitty-corner to Hunter’s Landing, it’s no secret that this area has been in dire need of a great restaurant for years. Now the urban neighbourhood can relish in this fantastic eatery that oozes comfort both in food and vibe.
Leading this highly-anticipated opening are restaurateur impresarios Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth who, while having just opened a Yorkville restaurant less than one month ago, continue to take over Toronto’s culinary scene. Over the last few years, the duo seem to have been doing a “tour du monde” with a roster of restaurants including Weslodge (modern cuisine), Patria (Spanish cuisine), Byblos (Middle Eastern cusine), NAO Steakhouse (Asian-inspired steakhouse), and now Città, an Italian restaurant driven by simple, humble ingredients and a comfortable vibe.
The duo has partnered with Adam Brown, owner and operator of The Fox & Fiddle just down the street, who has been dreaming of opening a place like this in the area for years. Given his knowledge of the neighbourhood, and the duo’s passion for creating fantastic restaurant concepts, the partnership is logical. “Italian food has always been a passion of mine and we wanted to create a rustic Italian neighbourhood gem in this area,” says Harji. “We met Adam, who told us he wanted to open a casual Italian restaurant, so partnering with him was very natural and almost serendipitous.” Watching the two interact, it’s obvious the partnership is off to a strong start.
With floor to ceiling windows, the 84-seat room is rustic and cozy yet the details are clearly researched and thought out. I ask Harji who the designer is and with a small, yet humble, grin he tells me he is. While his other restaurants have all had big name designers attached to them, Harji tells me design has been a lifelong infatuation for both himself and Khabouth. “We wanted to hand-pick everything. I wanted old school tiles on the floor, wood-distressed tables (but not the fake looking ones), and statement pieces for the walls,” he says. It is clear, listening to him speak about the vision, that he is happy with the way it turned out even though they are still waiting for certain accent pieces to be delivered.
When listening to Harji speak about Città, his passion shines through so much that it makes me even more excited to experience my first meal here. But not only for that reason — the chef at the helm of the kitchen is none other than Chef Ben Heaton, whose former restaurant The Grove was named 2012’s best restaurant in Canada by Maclean’s Magazine. I ask him about the menu and, as he speaks about it, it’s obvious he’s thrilled about this new endeavour. He explains that the menu is simple, humble, ingredient-driven, and, of course, innovative — which, if you’ve ever tasted Heaton’s food, you know it will be.
As we chat about the menu direction, Heaton and Harji are very in sync and practically finish each other’s sentences. Heaton explains that when he met Harji only five months ago, he knew immediately that he wanted to work with him. “He’s a great guy, very modest and passionate about food and restaurants.” That said, for Heaton, a certain learning curve and re-training had to occur given the more extensive menu he served at The Grove. But, as he says, “Food is food and it’s my life.” I giggle as his enthusiasm about this new venture is infectious and I suddenly can’t wait to try his food.
Everything at Città is handmade, from the bread to the pastries to the pasta – and not with a pasta machine but rather a proper hand-cranker. Ingredients are local whenever possible, but Heaton insists that sometimes the imported items are simply better and with a simple menu like this, the best ingredients possible are key. His attention to detail is uncompromising and Harji jumps in to tell me that Heaton is so meticulous, he only accepts using specific eggs and a certain grind for the beef, measured to the millimeter. When I ask if Heaton tastes everything, he chuckles and Harji says, “Ben dances in the kitchen. His mouth is always moving. His hands are always moving. Sometimes I just like to stand back and watch him work.”
The menu Heaton has designed is simple yet inventive, featuring local salumi, imported cheeses, imaginative crostinis, salads, wood-burning oven pizzas, and handmade pastas. In addition, unique items are created for their daily specials menu. Today’s pasta special is “Sea Urchin Carbonara” and I think wow – gutsy for opening night. According to Heaton, during a recent friends and family night, this dish was a hit and, really, I’m not surprised. Asked what his favourite item is on the menu he tells me he loves the salads. I glance down at the menu to see the four salads and think, leave it up to Heaton to make salad so fantastically interesting.
Given its neighbourhood vibe, Città will also open for brunch on Sundays and, after hearing them speak about the menu, they have me so intrigued I may just pop over there this weekend. Apparently, the brunch menu is true to Italian culture as well as inspired by brunches Harji had at Maialino Restaurant in New York City’s Gramercy Hotel. He shows me a photo on his phone of fresh baked Italian pastries and a whole roasted pig made for last weekend’s practice run brunch and yes, he’s got my attention.
The cocktail and wine programs are not to be ignored, as they never are in the duo’s establishments, with Byblos mixologist Clayton Cooper having created an authentic Italian cocktail list that features classic concoctions as one would find at Harry’s, one of the oldest bars in Venice, Italy. No, the bellini is not frozen and served in a martini glass… it is made with proper peach puree and served in a champagne glass, as it always should be. The wine list is also stellar having been designed by Will Predhomme, one of Toronto’s most prominent sommeliers.
While Città is now opened seven nights a week and for Sunday brunch, in 2015 you can expect to see it open also for lunch, offering take-out and delivery, and potentially open on Saturdays for brunch. Also to be expected is a 100-seat patio that will likely be full from morning until late night, which Harji excitedly tells me is designed as an oasis and urban jungle. Like its interior, all the furniture and design will be custom-made with soft, comfortable seating and lots of greenery.
As I exit the new neighbourhood eatery, excited to return for a proper meal, I think these guys are going to make a huge impact on the Fort York area. That said, when you think of their talents as restaurateurs combined with the über skills of Chef Ben Heaton – well, we may just have a new Toronto destination restaurant to boot.
What are you most excited about at Città? Let us know your thoughts on “First Look: Città Now Open on Fort York” in the comments below or tweet us at @ViewTheVibe.