Since the '90s, Guy and Michael Rubino have been feeding the foodie hordes at their higher-end eateries like beerbistro, Zoom and Luce. But it was the opening of Rain in 2001 (later re-christened Ame) that truly transformed the downtown dining experience, raising the bar to levels that Clubland had never seen before.
So it's a bit of a shock that their latest venture, a pizza and pasta joint, is probably the most derivative idea they've ever undertaken. But hey, kudos to them for recognizing t
hat if you are going to open a restaurant during a global recession you'd better play it safe and cater to mainstream tastes, even if means following in the formulaic footsteps of a Terroni or Libretto.
What makes Strada 241 so unique, though, is neither the menu nor the uber-trendy setting inside a converted glassblowing factory. Instead it's the daring move to situate this classic Italian eatery smack dab in the middle of Chinatown amid blocks and blocks of crispy duck and pho.
As far as menus go it's pretty lean in its offering. As much as I look down upon those who dare defile the mighty Caesar salad, Strada's grilled caesar ($9), thankfully has nothing to do with adding slivers of dried-out chicken breast atop a bunch of greens. Instead it's the romaine lettuce that's slightly charred here, as are the leaves of the radicchio. It's a neat twist that well makes up for the fact that the croutons are just toasted cubes of stale bread and the gloopy, cloying dressing looks like it plopped out of a jar. But I do give them credit for trying. Which is more than I can say for a tempera squash ($8). Served with a salsa verde sauce, the slices are skewered, stacked and standing. It's not the dipping that disappoints though, it's the dripping. You won't believe the amount of oil pooling onto the surface of the wooden board, rendering this dish pretty much inedible, unless you just happen to be carrying a bottle of Pepto Bismol.
But what really baffles here is their take on a classic Italian seafood soup. Remember, we're talking the Rubinos here, brothers who for nearly two decades demonstrated how refined their cooking methods are. So a zuppa di pesce ($13) with lentils is a real puzzler. What should be a typically "hearty" meal is ruined by a watery thin tomato "passata" broth. And while the portion of seafood is generous, the shrimp, clams and mussels are way too chewy. Rudimentary mistakes for restaurant veterans like these just defies reason.
Salumi plates are still pretty popular. So why not offer them at Strada? A white marble platter for two ($12) with sopressatta, wild boar and prosciutto (our waiter, oops, calls it "pruschetta") is pretty been there done that. And usually this type of platter comes with some kind of complimentary condiment (mustard, sauerkraut, homemade chutney, etc.) to go along with the slabs of bread. Not here, thank you very much. At least there were a few olives to crush so we could make our own makeshift tapenade.
Thankfully there is something that shines at Strada and it's the pizzas. The zia rita ($15) has a beautifully chewy, thick crust as puffy as Indian naan. A refreshing departure from the Neapolitan pie craze that's taken Toronto by storm. Topped with chunks of spicy nduja sausage (a Rubino recipe made out of house like all their cured meats), fire roasted onions, rapini and parmigiano, this would be a winner if the tomato sauce wasn't so soupy as to soggy up such a gorgeous crust. The reason? The brothers, from Salerno, Italy, import canned and peeled tomatoes from their region, which we're told are extremely difficult to get. But why bother if they are so watery and practically flavourless? In a kitchen experiment, we open a can we're given to try out: watery, thin and missing that key fresh-from-the-garden aroma.
We're told that the plan is to make pastas in house. But in the meantime, Strada serves the dried Garofalo brand for their spaghetti ($16). For those who might consider this a fancy shmancy gourmet brand, just know that you can buy a package at Loblaws for $1.99. And while it's not a bad pasta, it begs the question: why go to such lengths to import "superior" tomatoes but use a grocery store brand of pasta? Why not import a beautiful dried pasta that we can't get here? Regardless, the guanciale bacon and tomato sauce combo works well, even if the portion is achingly small.
Desserts arrive in small mason jars, a tiresome trend that just won't let up. What ever happened to dainty dessert plates? Presentation aside, an Italian custard ($7) is very well executed. Now if only they hadn't spoiled it all and added something stupid like enough saffron to overpower a paella. The chocolate and hazelnut semifreddo ($7) fares far better with a rich, dense, chewy brownie topped with a meringue that reveals a molten sweet centre. Hands down the better choice.
Perhaps the problem with Strada is that for so long the Rubino brothers only catered to the upper crust and just don't know how to dumb it down for the masses. If they are going to make a successful go of it with such simple rustic fare, they're going to have to reexamine their current output. Because as it stands, there are just too many blunders at Strada to seriously consider traipsing over to Spadina for anything but that crispy duck and pho.