Buca has been something of a buzzword lately thanks to Jamie Oliver's late November tweet about his experience at the restaurant, lauding Executive Chef Rob Gentile as a "humble genius" who made his "favorite meal of the year." Since that tweet, I've been looking forward to visiting the inconspicuous King West spot to sample their now famous fare. If it's good enough for Jamie Oliver, it's good enough for me.
My experience as I arrive for lunch midweek begins a bit awkwardly. After giving the Maitre D' my coat, I'm sat at a table in the middle of the hustle bustle, with no menu. Though there are plenty of servers around, no one greets me nor offers me water or a menu for several minutes. When my waiter eventually does make his way over, he tersely notes "I'll be with you in just a minute," and then attends to wine and water service at the surrounding tables. Last time I checked, greeting new tables and providing them with menus before worrying about wine service was pretty much serving 101.
A few minutes later I am finally given a menu and decide to take a look at the wine list while I wait for my sister to join me. The list, crafted by sommelier Giuseppe Marchesini, is impressive: it boasts nearly 50 wines by the glass and many, many more by the bottle. The wines are virtually all Italian.
I begin with a glass of the Ca'bembo Friuli Pinot Grigio ($11) and without exaggeration it is literally the smallest glass of wine I have ever been served in my life. I take little tiny sips to make it last, trying to notice how wonderfully chilled, dry and refreshing the wine is, rather than the robbery taking place.
Looking around as I wait, I notice most of the clientele are men - no doubt the King West "suit" crowd taking a break from their work day. Read: an opportunity to drink a couple bottles of wine and get sufficiently obnoxious over lunch (at a later point in the meal, the ogling gent next to us will send a bottle of sparkling water crashing to my feet in a moment of profound clumsiness.)
All the cooks, bartenders, servers and most support staff are men as well, which makes for a conspicuously male-dominated atmosphere that makes me feel like I accidentally stumbled into a boys-only club.
When my sister arrives, she asks our server for a beer recommendation and subsequently settles on a bottle of Italian Theresianer ($8). This leads to some confusion when he brings over more Pinot Grigio instead. The mistake is quickly corrected, but his skittishness - sometimes endearing, sometimes not - continues throughout the course of the meal and leaves us a little on edge.
We begin our lunch with the Formaggi - a selection of three local and imported cheeses ($18) and house breads ($4.50). When the Formaggi arrives, we find Pecorino, aged sheep's milk cheese, and Lombardian Gorgonzola paired with orange and cranberry preserves, fig jam, and roasted red pepper jelly, respectively.
We clear our wooden board of cheese in record time, taking only a moment to savor the deliciously smooth richness of the extra-sharp Gorgonzola. The paired preserves are delicate and thoughtful, complimenting their cheesy counterparts exquisitely.
Next we order the Salsiccia, a combination of house-made pork sausage, fennel, peppers, roasted garlic on a bed of polenta ($21). I ask our server whether the polenta is served creamy or firm and he assures me it is on the firmer side. When it arrives I'm a little disappointed to find creamed polenta as the base of the dish.
We dig in anyway, noting its very homemade flavour. Though I don't think much of the Salsiccia initially - nothing about it stands out to me - the flavour of the fennel (which is tender and not too licorice-tasting) and the tangy, hearty, tomato sauce grow on me with every bite.
For our main course we share the Pizze Funghi ($18), which comes with a large pair of scissors to cut it with. The rectangular thin-crust pizza is smothered in beautifully fresh chanterelles, mascarpone, Gorgonzola and marjoram. The floppy crust, which we fold in half, is the ideal way to sandwich the oozing cheeses and dainty chanterelles into perfect mouth-sized vessels. We regret being unable to finish the entire pie.
While I don't think I'd choose Buca for my last supper, the food is certainly tasty. The effort taken to share an authentic piece of Italy with Toronto should not go unmentioned. However, the combination of awkward service and the somewhat liquored-up man-crowd lies somewhere outside my lunchtime comfort zone. Call me old-fashioned, but for the pocketbook-drain that Buca promises, I expect at the very least, a hello and a tall glass of Pinot Grigio.