Thursday, December 6, 2012

Zucca Trattoria: Exceptional Regional Italian Cuisine

Chef Andrew Milne-Allan is still fabulous after all these years, which is why many downtown folk make the unlikely pilgrimage to this boring stretch of Yonge between Eglinton and Davisville, to savour some of the very best Italian cuisine in the city in this uptown institution. Most chefs of his age and stature would have passed off the nightly grind to a sous-chef long ago, but Chef Milne-Allen is in the kitchen every night, which explains why Zucca is still delectable after 16 years. In fact, it's been quipped, "If your mama could cook this good you would never, ever leave home."

Zucca Trattoria: warm, professional and attentive service

Blair Aspinall, co-owner of Zucca and Chef-Owner Andrew Milne-Allan

New Zealand-born chef-owner Andrew Milne-Allan cooks pure Italian from the soul. He takes very traditional Italian dishes and deconstructs and improves them with a deft touch, drawing inspiration from Naples, Umbria, Sicily, Sardinia and elsewhere on the peninsula. Dinner at Zucca starts with hot, moist rosemary-sprinkled farinata, which is the best I’ve ever had. A master of authentic regional Italian cuisine, Chef Milne-Allan makes his own pastas, and sauces them 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.

Farinata, a thin unleavened pancake made with chickpea flour, onion, sea salt and rosemary

The 70-label wine list, chosen by restaurant partner Blair Aspinall, is largely affordable Italian and intelligently picked. Corkage is $25 if you want to bring a special treasure

Minestra del Giorno

Stuffed Sardines, the evening's special antipasto 

Polpo all Griglia: Grilled octopus with radicchio and olives on a silky fennel purée

Troccoli al Nero ai Frutti di Mare with squid-ink noodles, shrimp, mussels, 
cuttlefish, white wine, parsley and extra virgin olive oil   

Fish is a specialty at Zucca and the choices this evening are Branzino, Porgy and Orata, which can be served whole, expertly grilled with herbs, or filleted off the bone for the more squeamish fish lovers. A creature of habit, I always order the Grilled Branzino, and it's superlative, with crackling crisp skin and sweet moist flesh. For dessert, his Meringata di Nocciola e Cioccolata con Zabaione di Caffè, a hazelnut meringue with bittersweet chocolate mousse, cream and espresso zabaione is irresistible. Add the warm, professional and attentive service to that mix, inhale deeply, and swoon. 

Zucca's signature dish, Branzino alla Griglia grilled with fresh herbs, lemon 
and extra virgin olive oil 

Contorni of wilted greens and baked artichokes

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!

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