Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Taverna Pazzo: Stratford's Calabrian Connection

Stratford has come a long way in the culinary world from its humble beginnings when the theatre festival started in 1953, housed in a giant canvas tent on the banks of the River Avon. Fuelled by talent from the Stratford Chefs School and the founders of venerable restaurants like the Old Prune, Rundles and Church, the city has firmly cemented its reputation as a major player on the culinary stage, luring dedicated theatregoers and food aficionados alike. One of the more recent star attractions on Stratford's culinary scene is Chef Yva Santini of Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria, a warm and friendly Italian brasserie perched on the corner of Ontario and Erie Street in the heart of the city. Serving some of the most innovative and authentically delicious Italian cuisine in Stratford, Chef School alumnus Yva Santini serves regional dishes, much like the rustic meals she enjoyed in her family's village of Calabria. 

Stratford Chef School alumnus Chef Yva Santini of Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria

Pazzo Taverna's bright and charming Italian farmhouse-chic interior 

Raised in an Italian-Canadian family, Chef Santini has always had a passion for cooking and an understanding of seasonality and terroir, so her menu features only local ingredients and regional produce from Stratford and Perth County for Pazzo's repertoire of delicious offerings. Sustainable seafood like oysters, crab and lobster make up the heart of Chef Santini's ever-changing menu joined with locally-sourced meat, house made tagliatelle, fettuccine, ravioli, gnocchi and hand stretched mozzarella. Inspired by her Italian heritage, the casually elegant farmhouse-chic décor of Pazzo is warm and inviting with elegant dark wood and leather seating, modern tableware, subdued lighting and playful architectural accents such as salvaged mirrors, doors and picture frames plus an enormous stuffed deer head that stands guard at the panelled entryway of the restaurant.

A stuffed stag head overlooks the dining room, and at Christmas time 
he's 'tarted up' with a red plastic nose

A quirky montage of ornate mirrors line the walls at Pazzo

The bar area at Pazzo Taverna

Pazzo's Calabria-inspired menu

Housemade bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar

A glass of Italian Pinot Grigio

Nestled in one of Pazzo's spacious corner leather clad booths and fortified with a glass of wine, we embarked on a sampling of Chef Santini's late summer dinner menu, starting with the artfully presented Celery and Parsley Soup with mini bacon arancini. Garnished with nasturtium petals and drizzled with parsley oil, the soup was delicious as it was spectacular. The Warm Octopus Salad was soft and tender with lovely tangy chopped Cerignola olives, warm roasted potatoes and fresh parsley for a simple and soul satisfying antipasti. The pasta dishes were the highlight, with the Lobster, Fennel and Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli with Tarragon Cream deserving a standing ovation. Nestled in a puddle of silky smooth tarragon cream, the striped ravioli were rich and delicate punctuated with the vibrant colour and crunchy texture of tiny Tobiko flying fish roe and fresh dill. Delicious and exquisitely presented, the dish was outstanding. So was the entire evening, from start to finish. With tickets to see 'Beaux Stratagem' at the Festival Theatre later that evening, we decided not to indulge in Chef Santini's Italian-inspied dolce of Torta della Nonna, Tiramisu or Crema Brusciata della Carmella, and settled for hot and steamy espressos instead. As with every Shakespearean play however, there's always a second act, and the next time we're in Stratford we'll surely return to Pazzo Taverna for an encore performance. Bravissima.

Celery and Parsley Soup with mini bacon arancini

Crushed Sweet Pea and Burrata Crostini

Warm Octopus Salad with potato, olives and parsley in a light marinade

Beet Salad with Goat Cheese, Sprouts and Pine Nuts

House Made Fettucini with Church Hill Farm Pork Ragu, gremolata and Parmigiano

Lobster, Fennel and Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli with tarragon cream and topped with Tobiko and fresh dill

A single espresso