Monday, June 18, 2012

Zucca: Exceptional Regional Italian Cuisine

New Zealand-born Andrew Milne-Allan, chef and co-owner of Zucca Trattoria in Toronto, creates traditional Italian dishes like a native Italian, drawing his inspiration from the regional culinary styles of Naples, Umbria, Sicily, Sardinia, Venice and elsewhere on the peninsula. How did a Kiwi expat become one of Toronto’s most respected Italian chefs? "I caught the Italian bug early and stuck at it," explains Andrew Milne-Allan. "Travelling to Italy, there’s something about the simplicity of the cuisine. I fell in love with it. Who doesn’t?" The self-taught chef moved to Toronto in 1975 to get what New Zealanders call 'O.E.', or overseas experience. The rest is history.

Chef Andrew Milne-Allan of Zucca

Blair Aspinall, co-owner and gregarious host of Zucca

Milne-Allan would become an integral part of the burgeoning restaurant scene along Queen Street West, opening The Parrot in 1978 with bad-boy chef Greg Couillard, and in 1983, starting Trattoria Giancarlo with Eugene Barone and Giancarlo Carnevale. In 1996, Milne-Allan together with co-owner and manager Blair Aspinall, launched Zucca to rave reviews. They've never looked back, winning accolades from fans since it opened more than fifteen years ago.

Zucca's muddled orange & ginger signature cocktail of the evening that Blair suggested I try. 
It's so new that they don't even have a name for it yet!

Serving the best local seasonal ingredients, Chef Milne-Allan makes his own pastas and sauces according to the season. Spring brings sweet little fava beans and local wild mushrooms with fresh ricotta. Winter is salt cod with olives and sweet peppers, or clouds of chestnut gnocchi with cabbage, fresh sage, black truffle and barely-there cream. There are meaty ragouts, poppy-seed sauces, plenty of delicate vegetables, and entrees that feature local suppliers such as Cumbrae Farms, La Ferme Black River Game, Angelao Bean Salsiccia and Sustainable Blue for the freshest seafood and delicious grilled whole fish, which changes daily.

Zucca's outrageously good hot rosemary sprinkled homemade Farinata, 
with a soft warm centre, with some warm olives on the side

To start the evening, a plate of delicious hot, rosemary-sprinkled farinata appears instantly as we peruse Zucca's menu, from fresh homemade Strozzapreti with wild leeks, fresh fava beans, prosciutto, and toasted bread crumbs, Chitarrina con Burrata, or 'guitar string' noodles, with burrata, calabrian lemon, over-dried tomatoes and green onions to Cappellacci Dei Briganti, 'brigands' hats' with a lamb and sweet pepper ragu. Pesce alla griglia is a house specialty, with a selection of fresh whole grilled fish offered each evening — tonight it was branzino and orata. We started the evening with a white Greco di Tufo wine that our marvelous server Briana suggested would be an excellent pairing with fish, and it was a perfect match. I also noticed that the table behind us had brought their own wine — for a nominal $25 corkage fee, diners who want to bring a special treasure with them to enjoy with their meal, and invited to do so. Nice touch.

Zucca's Farinata recipe can be found at the bottom of the page!

Zucca's fresh homemade bread and fennel-infused soft Grissini

Zucca's selection of Primi varies depending on what's in season, which makes each visit a new voyage of discovery. This evening there were two new delicious additions to the menu: A light and delicate Parmesan Flan served with Sliced Beets and a sweet balsamic drizzle, as well as a typically Venetian dish of Poached White Asparagus Wrapped in Speck and served on perfectly grilled white polenta. We also tried the lovely Insalata di Sanguinelli,salad of sliced Sicilian blood oranges with belgium endive, sweet onion, medjool dates and fresh mint; Insalata Tiepida di Polipo, which was grilled octopus served on warm sliced potatoes, celery heart, cherry tomatoes and gaeta olives; and Poached Local Organic Green Asparagus with sautéed mushrooms, arugula and grana padano cheese.

Parmesan Flan and Sliced Beets with a sweet Balsamic Drizzle

Salad of sliced Sicilian oranges with begian endive and sweet onion 
with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint

Warm locally grown organic Asparagus with sautéed mushrooms, 
arugula and Parmegiana-Reggiano

Insalata tiepida di polipo: Grilled Octopus with warm potatoes, Calabrian lemons, 
sweet onion, cherry tomatoes and gaeta olives

White Asparagus wrapped in Speck on White Polenta

Entrées include a selection of homemade pasta, fresh grilled fish, grilled dry-aged cumbrae farms NY steak, roasted naturally-raised mallard duck breast, sicilian-style rabbit and naturally-raised grilled Roman-style cornish hen, in addition to a selection of special dishes which change each day. I chose the Whole Grilled Branzino which can come de-boned, but I asked for it to come whole, with the head and tail still intact. A small bottle of olive oil and bowl of sea salt arrive with the fish as well as a contorni, which this evening was sautéed swiss chard and grilled artichokes. I couldn't have been happier. 

Pesce alla Griglia: Whole grilled Branzino stuffed with fresh herbs and lemon 
served with olive oil and sea salt

The swiss chard being sautéed for my Branzino

Contorni with the grilled fish: Sautéed swiss chard with artichokes

Another typical dish of the Veneto is the Troccoli al Nero ai Frutti di Mare, squid ink noodles with shrimp, mussels and cuttlefish in a brodo of white wine, parsley and olive oil. We also tried the Pansoti con salsa di noci, a Ligurian ravioli with spring greens and ricotta in a toasted walnut sauce served with grano padano cheese, and the evening's special pasta, Casoncelli noodles with a meaty Beef and Pork ragu.

Troccoli al Nero ai Frutti di Mare: Squid ink noodles with shrimp, mussels, 
cuttlefish, white wine, parsley and olive oil

Pansoti con salsa di noci: Ligurian ravioli with spring greens and ricotta 
in a toasted walnut sauce served with grano padano cheese

Casoncelli, a meaty ragu with Beef and Pork

The warm and inviting interior of Zucca

Zucca had been on my culinary radar for such a long time, I can't believe it took me so long to discover this culinary gem. At 62, Milne-Allan still loves to cook and hasn’t planned his 'exit strategy' for retirement just yet. As he says, "With cuisine, you can never know it all. It’s a lifelong learning experience." Judging from the dedicated following he's cultivated over the years, they'd be thrilled if he keeps on creating for many years to come. As one reviewer quipped — "If your mama could cook this good, you'd never leave home". 

Delicious, hot rosemary-sprinkled farinata appears instantly as you peruse 
Zucca's seasonally changing menu

Hot Rosemary Sprinkled Farinata
Serves 6-8
Recipe courtesy of Andrew Milne-Allan / Zucca

3/4 cup chick pea flour
2 cups cold water
1 tsp salt
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
dried rosemary
extra virgin olive oil

Whisk 1/2 water into the flour beating out the lumps. Add the rest of the water and the salt, whisking well. Let the batter rest for 2 hours.

Cut parchment paper into a circle just larger than a large baking sheet or 12" circular pizza pan. When ready to cook preheat oven to 500°F.

Whisk the batter again, adding a little more cold water. It should be the consistency of table cream. Place the paper over the pan, smoothing it into the edges with your fingers. Generously cover the paper with olive oil. Using a large ladle add 2/3 of the batter to the pan. With a rubber spatula mix the olive oil and batter together. It does not need to be mixed completely. Add the remaining batter. Spread the onions evenly over the batter.

Transfer to the hot oven. After 5 minutes when the batter is starting to set sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the surface. Continue to cook until golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven, dress with extra virgin olive oil and fresh ground black pepper. When cool enough to handle use a metal spatula to lift the farinata off the paper and cut into wedges. Deliciosa!

Zucca's Spaghetti Alla Norma topped with eggplant and garlic chips

Spaghetti Alla Norma 
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Andrew Milne-Allan / Zucca

1 1 lb medium eggplant
9 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
28-oz can Italian plum tomatoes, roughly chopped, juices reserved
1 cup torn basil leaves, packed
Ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 lb dried spaghetti
Grated ricotta salata for serving

Trim and discard eggplant stem. Cut in half lengthwise. Cut each half crosswise into 1/2-inch thick semi-circles. Season with salt. Press between paper towels 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onion. Cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, their juices and 2/3 cup basil. Simmer until thickened, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm over low heat.

In small fry pan, combine garlic and 4 tbsp oil. Place over medium-low heat. Cook until garlic is lightly golden and crisp. Drain on paper towel. Reserve oil for another use if desired.

Preheat broiler to high. Lay eggplant slices on foil-lined baking tray. Brush both sides with remaining 3 tbsp oil. Broil 6 inches from heat until browned and cooked through, about 7 to 8 minutes per side. Turn off broiler and keep warm in cooling oven.

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Cook spaghetti according to instructions on package. Drain and add to sauce over low heat. Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Place pasta on large platter or divide among 4 bowls. Top with eggplant slices, garlic chips and remaining 1/3 cup basil. Serve immediately with ricotta salata.