Being half Italian, I’ve had the pleasure of eating great Italian food my entire life. I grew up eating the simple dishes my dad made that he remembered from his childhood, the complex pastas that my mom (not Italian, but an amateur gourmet chef) loved to experiment with, and the lasagnas, slow-cooked sauces and great grilled meats made by my Italian aunts and uncles that I’ve tried to duplicate the taste of ever since I started messing around in the kitchen.
While I love eating the familiar flavours I grew up on, I also get excited about being able to sample new takes on Italian dishes prepared by great professional chefs. Jenny and I were recently at an event that let us do just that. The George Brown College Chef School’s Viva Italia! Cucina event is a week-long celebration of the food and culture of Italy. For the past three years, the event has allowed diners the opportunity to eat lunches and dinners prepared by the college’s talented students, and to enjoy movies and other Italian cultural offerings. Proceeds from the events go toward scholarships for George Brown culinary students.
The Viva Italia event we attended was the gala tasting reception, which brought together some of Toronto’s best chefs, along with food and wine producers, for an evening of eating, drinking and enjoying Italian culture.
Jenny and I agreed that one of the best samples we had at the gala was Buca chef Rob Gentile’s dish of rare beef heart served with grilled radicchio Treviso, taleggio cheese from Montforte Dairy, Cookstown Greens cippolini onion, preserved figs and concorde grape mosto cotto. The flavours worked beautifully together in this dish, with sweet, sour and bitter elements paired well with the rich, earthy taste of the beef heart.
Of course, Toronto is a city full of great Italian restaurants, so many of the dishes we tasted were amazing. Here are some of the highlights:
Mario Pingue of Niagara’s Pingue Prosciutto was on hand to sample his product, slicing the prosciutto fresh for eaters over the course of the evening. Pingue’s is the prosciutto of choice for many Ontario restaurants, and it’s not hard to see why, as the taste and texture is very close to the authentic stuff that gets imported from Parma.
Chef Fabio Bondi from Local Kitchen was serving crostini topped with thinly sliced potato, braised octopus and a hint of citrus. A delicious bite of food.
Staff from Toronto fine food grocer Pusateri’s was preparing chicken and spinach risotto. While I rarely order risotto in a restaurant and only occasionally make it at home, I have a soft spot for it as an Italian comfort food, so I was happy to see it being prepared fresh for diners at the Viva Italia! Cucina gala.
Chef Andrew Milne-Allan of popular Toronto restaurant Zucca Trattoria prepared a canape of farro, cooked risotto-style and mixed with shrimp, lemon, celery and onion, and served on an endive leaf. The endive is a great vessel for serving something like this, as it’s strong enough to hold the food well while also adding a nice hit of bitter to the dish. And it was nice to see farro being used, as it’s a grain I’m still not very familiar with but have really enjoyed the few times I’ve eaten it.
While the food was great, Jenny and I really enjoyed the chance to interact with many of the chefs and food representatives on hand, to discover new ideas and stories. Representatives from Peroni, one of Italy’s most popular beers, were there to educate attendees about how well their beer pairs with one of Italy’s most popular cheeses, asiago. While the idea of pairing cheese and beer isn’t necessarily new – a dark Belgian ale is a great match for cheese fondue, for instance – consumption of beer is still low in Italy and it’s not a common pairing for cheese in the cuisine.
As we tasted, the Peroni reps explained that beer and cheese naturally complement one another, as the cows that produce the milk used in the cheese consume some of the same grains used in the production of the beer. The Peroni was definitely a great match with the sharp asiago, as both have an inherent creamy mouth feel, and the sweet hoppy taste of the beer helps to mellow out the cheese’s strong bite.
We also really loved chatting with chef Luis Valenzuela of Torito Tapas Bar. While both the restaurant and the chef are Spanish, it was Valenzuela who made one of the best Italian dishes of the night. He blanched homemade tagliatelle noodles in water for one minute, then placed the noodles in a mold along with chunks of braised wild boar guanciale and amatriciana (spicy tomato) sauce. The molds were placed in the oven to cook, so that the end result was a sort of cross between a plate of pasta and a layered lasagna. Chef Valenzuela topped each dish with a disc of deliciously salty, thinly sliced Pingue’s pancetta. He was also serving a dish of raw spaghetti squash and thinly julienned zucchini tossed with a peanut and almond sauce that tasted very Spanish inspired.
The fact that Chef Valenzuela’s guanciale amatriciana pasta was clearly one of the night’s most popular dishes – he told us he made more than 100 servings and he was down to about 20 left just an hour into the evening, and there were constantly lineups at his booth – is proof positive that you don’t have to be Italian to cook amazing Italian food; you just need passion for both the food and the people eating it.
Valenzuela spoke to us with passion about the time he spent studying at George Brown College’s culinary school. He said he started in the program shortly after moving from his native Mexico, and George Brown allowed him to explore a number of different cuisines, cook with and learn from chefs who’d worked all over the world (including one who had cooked for the queen), and make important industry connections. He said he still feels strong ties to the school, which is why he comes back to volunteer his time and skills to events such as the Viva Italia week.
This was our first exposure to the Viva Italia! Cucina event at George Brown College’s Chef School, but judging by the size of the crowd and the great chefs who attended, it’s clearly developed a strong following. We’ll definitely go back to the gala next year – and hopefully enjoy one of the lunches or dinners during the week, as well.