Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Vertical: Giacomo Pasquini's Flavours of the Adriatic

Tucked away in the heart of Toronto's Financial District is Vertical, a sleek and sophisticated restaurant specializing in the deliciously diverse regional cuisine of Italy and the Mediterranean. Partners Joe Alberti and Gary Chivers launched Vertical Restaurant & Bar in 2005 on the mezzanine level of First Canadian Place, and has since become a beacon for Bay Street power execs who flock to its stylish bar for after work drinks, as well as its prime outdoor mezzanine patio + lounge which overlooks the parkette and waterfall of First Canadian Place facing King Street — a hidden gem for those in the area. But the real lure here is chef Giacomo Pasquini’s glorious ingredient-driven Italian cuisine.

Vertical's summer outdoor patio - a hidden gem

Born and raised along the Adriatic coast in the Le Marche region of central Italy, Chef Pasquini learned a passion for seafood at an early age. Working with  some of the top chefs of Italy and a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Italy, including Palazzo Sasso in gorgeous Ravello, where my husband and I had lunch one afternoon on our honeymoon almost ten years ago. True to his heart, Vertical's menu reflects his passion for simple exquisitely prepared Italian cuisine with dishes such as whole grilled fish, fresh homemade pasta and seasonal specialties inspired by Italy's focus on simplicity and freshness with a menu prepared with a lighter, healthier style typical of Mediterranean influenced cuisine.

Executive Chef Giacomo Pasquini (R) with his stellar kitchen crew

Vertical's  elegant and sophisticated dining room showcases Chef Pasquini's outstanding Italian cuisine. Designed by Toronto-based agency Mackay|Wong, the interior of warm chocolate coloured woods, gauzy curtains, modern Riedel steamware and contemporary table settings, create a stylish and inviting space with a mood of relaxed intimacy with highlights of rich colour and plush seating. Modern yet unpretentious, both the interior design and culinary artistry of Chef Pasquini are simpatico.

Warm chocolate coloured woods, gauzy curtains and elegant table settings 
make Vertical an elegant and inviting dining destination

We started our evening at Vertical with a lovely 2009 bottle of Ceregio Sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna, which was also one of twenty wines available by the glass or in unique individual 9-ounce carafe called a 'quartino'. Chef Pasquini's inspiring dinner menu was composed into small shared appetizers to whet the appetite such as Warm Black Olives, Prosciutto di Parma, Crostini with goat cheese and ramps, and Burata with a zucchini, eggplant and mint caponota with pine nuts and crostini. We were drawn to the bowl of Warm Black Olives which were flavour-infused with balsamic and herbed olive oil, and served with warm homemade focaccia. The little Niçoise and Italian Gaeta olives were transformed — an explosion of soothing sweet and pungent flavours. An old Italian tradition, the warm olives were the perfect aperitivi to start our meal.

Warm black olives with a balsamic and herbed oil with focaccia

The selection of fabulous starters, homemade pasta, risotto, fish and meats on Chef Pasquini's menu, all sounded so delicious and authentically Italian, it was very difficult to choose among all the wonderful dishes. An ardent fan of fish and seafood, I had to order the Warm Calamari with smoked dates and clams in a squid ink dressing. Perfectly cooked, the calamari was soft and delicate, and the squid ink dressing, rich, thick and delicious with a subtle saltiness that provided the perfect counterpoint to this gift from the sea. We also also ordered the Beet Salad with Monforte Toscano cheese, mustard greens and hazelnuts, which was a marriage of red, yellow and candy cane beets, served both as roasted and raw spirals in a light dressing.

Pan Fried Calamari with clams, smoked dates in a squid ink dressing

Beet Salad with Monforte Toscano cheese, mustard greens and hazelnuts

As entrées we selected the special Risotto which changes daily, based on the freshest seasonal ingredients. Tonight it was a wonderfully flavourful Asparagus Risotto with shallots and pea shoots, as well as a Whole Grilled Branzino served with locally grown cherry tomatoes and sautéed fennel with a tomato confit and caper sauce. I'm always drawn to fresh whole grilled fish on a menu, if it's featured. Chef Pasquini's grilled Branzino was excellent. Moist and flakey, the flesh was perfectly cooked and housed in a crisp salty skin. The kitchen even magically de-boned the fish which made not having to navigate the tiny bones a welcome surprise.

Asparagus Risotto

Whole Branzini topped with tomato confit and capers, braised fennel 
and a drizzle of lemon sauce

During our meal I asked our server Sarah (aka Sam), if Chef Pasquini was in the kitchen that evening. When she said that he was, I asked if would be possible to meet him, if he had a moment — which most chef definitely do not. Within a few minutes, Chef Giacomo Pasquini arrived at our table, smiling with hand outstretched. Having just returned from two weeks in Umbria, I felt a compatriot spirit with this young and good looking Adriatic Marchigian. The spirit of his cuisine is empathetic with the exceptional cuisine we experienced throughout Italy, and he was pleased when I mentioned the authenticity and inspired flavours of his cuisine. We compared experiences and our love of Italy's phenomenal food, extraordinary culture, inspiring landscapes and warm-hearted people. I may have been gushing, but my admiration of our meal was straight from the heart. He was also moved by my sincerity and even offered to lend us his apartment in Le Marche the next time we were in Italy! Great food, a lovely inviting dining room, professional courteous service and a young talented chef just a few blocks from home — will I be back? Absolutamente!