Church Aperitivo

Nestled in Toronto's insatiably hip and incessantly gentrifying Queen Street West landscape, Church Aperitivo is a new bar-restaurant with a refined veneer fusing equal portions New York wine bar, late 20th-century Russian discotheque, and upscale Italian eatery. Occupying prime corner real estate at Queen and Dovercourt, Church Aperitivo keeps some excellent company, situated across from The Great Hall concert venue, The Bristol English style pub, along with a gaggle of uber chic upstart bars and restaurants (The Good Son, Dog and Bear, The Drake and Gladstone Hotels) within a two to three block radius.

Church Aperitivo exterior
Church Aperitivo exterior features exposed brick wall
Photo by Church Aperitivo

Church Aperitivo's moniker (more below) arises less from piousness or Toronto’s street of the same name, and more from a tradition of pre-dinner amuse-geules, in addition to the building's history as a House of the Holy. Formerly a Slavic Pentecostal Church, its current visage bears just slightly less witness to Christendom, though still maintains its original exterior facade, exposed-beam ceilings, and a glorious feast of vintage masonry revealing the building's original interior brick. While Queen West has long been associated with artists, coffee shops, and charming (if not dodgy) music venues, the area—if Aperitivo is any indication—is moving more in the direction of King Street night clubs and higher end dining than Parkdale shoestring vintage guitar shops and brunch haunts. Given the increase in Queen West condos, the influx of young professionals, and general gentrification, this stands to reason. While helping polish up the neighbourhood, Church Aperitivo is another high-end indicator of the trend slowly wiping away the grimy, gritty element that was once the signature of Queen West.

Church Aperitivo interior
Church Aperitivo interior
Photo by Church Aperitivo
 

Decor

Inside, Church Aperitivo shines. After negotiating the street level foyer, guests are greeted by 16-foot ceilings revealing the building’s original wooden beams. The long, narrow dining room follows the line of the original church aisle, and leads to the rear of the space. There, the once raised altar—site of holy pontification—is where Aperitivo’s kitchen (a hive of activity visible to diners through a long, horizontal peek-a-boo window) is now situated. Even with the restaurant's dimly lit interior, its polished white marble bar, silverware, and chrome fixtures glimmer. Dark hardwood flooring and matching tables somehow catch a hint of the light as well, adding to the interior's monochromatic contrast. The restaurant’s elegant low-wattage bulbs throw off less total light than the two enormous flat screens playing some form of silent, subtitled, seemingly vintage euro-drama (I later learn they were Sofia Lauren movies: Casanova '70 and Boccaccio '70). The soundless imagery mirrored the restaurant's low interior volume as I initially entered, but within a half hour, as my eyes began burning with the stroke-inducing screen-flashing, the place started running amok with voices and raucous laughter. I guess it was a Saturday night after all.

Church Aperitivo dinner
The restaurant is usually pretty full, especially during weekends
Photo by Church Aperitivo

I was seated at the bar. I promptly asked for a smaller, more intimate location but the total of four tables for two I could pick out in the restaurant were already occupied. The bar was also seemingly the only place to sit if you're not a group of six or more. This led me to chicken-or-egg it, wondering if the restaurant either had a boatload of party reservations, or it's a place distinctly meant for parties. Seated on low-to-no backed stools in the middle of the aircraft-carrier-length bar I felt a tad exposed; a sentiment added to by the high, exposed-conduit ceilings. Still, the ambiance was crisp and elegant, giving off an aroma of cash, again reminding me more of Yorkville than Queen West.

Church Aperitivo Chef Fabio
Chef Fabio cooking mussels
Photo by Church Aperitivo

Service

I was seated quickly and one of the bartender/servers was on me in seconds with a menu. Overall I was well looked after: no waits, lots of staff in case my main server was occupied (she wasn’t), water refills before I could ask, all-black attire, and food delivered to my little slice of the behemoth bar within minutes of ordering. The clear service highlight of the night was the man who brought me my food; an older Italian-Canadian gentleman with the kind of thick Italian accented English you’d expect from Pasquale ("The Singing Chef", R.I.P). He was like a sweet doting Grandpa. He served me with a smile as he half sang a strong caution that "the-ah gentleman be-ah-careful with-ah-the spice-ah": referring to the fresh bowl of hot pepper salsa that looked like it had been made moments ago. He came back minutes later with another sing-song to see if I was enjoying the food. While he was a jewel in the crown, all staff were friendly, prompt, and professional.

Drinks

Church Aperitivo offers a host of unique cocktails ($12-$15), beer (Corona, Heineken, Peroni bottles, and Mill St. Organic, Stella, and Peroni on tap, $7), and an extensive wine list (white; glass $11-$14, bottle $55-$75, red; glass $12-$15, bottle, $60-$500) that interestingly, for an Italian resto, incorporates varieties from California, New Zealand, Niagara, and, of course, Italian options. I went with a particularly pious cocktail, the "Redemption"—basically a fancy gin and soda with lime. While tasty, and making use of higher quality Hendrick’s gin, it was a bit lackluster for $15.

Church Aperitivo Drinks
Bottles and candles behind the bar
Photo by Church Aperitivo

Food

Church Aperitivo’s menu follows a tradition that bears the same name (well, half the same): "Aperitivo" is an Italian term that, while indeed having the standard definition of "pre-meal drink", in fact comes from the Latin word meaning "to open", which, in the Italian version, implies something (i.e. an aroma) that "opens your stomach". Dating as far back as the 1700s, Aperitivo is "an Italian tradition that combines small plate food with refreshingly light alcoholic drinks during the hours of early evening as a relaxing prelude to dinner". Extended into a restaurant’s M.O., Aperitivo constitutes both an offering of complimentary appetizers (with drink purchase) from 5pm to 630pm Tuesday to Friday, and a menu that takes an overall cue from the "stomach opening" movement, showcasing a range of plates that can be shared tapas style, or ordered as complete individual meals.

Menu offerings are quite diverse and range from crostini ($12), to salads (kale, radicchio and endive, quinoa, and caprese, $10-$15), crudi (beef carpaccio, and a daily fish crudo, $17), appetizers (a large range from fried olives, to veal and pork meatballs, fried polenta, mussels, rice balls, etc. $7-$27, including a $35 mixed sharing platter), fresh pastas ($18-$24 and a serving option for four, $55-$82 respectively), meats and fish (grilled halibut, grilled lamb chops, 12oz ribeye, $32-$36), and an assortment of sides from $6-$7.

Church Aperitivo Dishes
Church Aperitivo meals are both good-looking and tasty
Photo by Church Aperitivo

Meal

I went with the crostini appetizer, in addition to fried olives stuffed with veal, chicken, and pork, the red and green kale salad, and a creamy radicchio and sweet gorgonzola gnocchi.

I asked for the whole shebang to come out together as a tapas style layout. On a tapas note, I generally don't like the term as an overused cliche; people throw it around like a ball, and it still doesn’t give you an actual sense for what the food tastes like, beyond implying that many little things come out together. So. fancy. Conveniently, this already has a name: "appetizers". But tomato, tomato I always say. And in any case, once my meal(s) arrived, the visual and aromatic display made me forget all about my tapas-rage.

Church Aperitivo Mussels
Mussels in sauce with toasts
Photo by Church Aperitivo

I started with one of the fried olives. Coarsely battered, it was as delicious as anything fried always is upon first bite, and the layers of flavour post-taste revealed themselves nicely. You could in fact perceive the melange of meats somehow microscopically scooped inside the olive’s pit-hole, but the classically savoury nature of these green olives, while delicious, was slightly overdone by what I assume was salt added to the meat, and more salt added to the crispy batter itself. While a bit puckering, the fried olives served as a savoury counterpoint to the other elements of the meal. My other app, the crostini, was a duo of delectables served in a small breadbasket and a long, narrow plate of spreads in classy glass serving cups. As you’d expect, the crostini themselves were excellently crisp, and tastefully left sans accoutrements, making them the perfect receptacles for the gourmet array of four different spreads: olive tapenade, house-smoked salmon, soft mascarpone cheese, and slices of cured meat. This simple appetizer hit the mark. The crostini were tasty on their own as a carby palate cleanser, while the quartet of tapenades transformed the dish into a light, gourmet meal of its own.

Church Aperitivo Kale salad
Kale salad
Photo by Church Aperitivo

The kale salad was another pleaser. Simple, not overly dressed (in fact much of the dressing had already fallen to the bottom of the bowl upon delivery, leaving me to think it was not dressed enough), and light, with apple slices and split pistachios as an innovative addition. One of my kale pet peeves is that often the leaves are torn or chopped into pieces too small to be easily forked. Those little curly, bouncy, corrugated bits don’t like being found. Church Aperitivo’s rendition was a little like this, and I had to do the TV dinner thing, with my index finger dabbing helpfully here and there to get a full fork on. First world problems. Overall, the kale was fresh, the dressing was a well balanced vinaigrette, the portion size was optimal, and it provided a sweet balance to the rest of the meal.

Church Aperitivo tapas
Tapas. Photo by Church Aperitivo

Enter the gnocchi (should have been a Bruce Lee sequel). A square-plated sea of white was the creamy gorgonzola and radicchio gnocchi dish I ordered, and it didn’t disappoint—in flavour or appearance. "Pillowy" is a word to describe the gnocchi’s freshness and soft, melty texture. And while I don’t have an Italian Grandma nor experience with a pasta maker, I imagine this kind of quality is exactly what I would get were it made by either. The gorgonzola sauce was rich and well portioned, and the sparse radicchio added a nice bitter counterpoint to the dish’s buttery density. Overall, it was simple, elegant, and enjoyable. It sold me on the restaurant’s fresh ingredients and sauce-to-pasta ratio; so often an issue with pastas. I would return to CA in the future for more, but would choose another pasta option to explore a few of their other offerings.

Dessert

The main menu has no dessert offerings and I didn’t see a separate dessert menu, nor was I asked whether I wanted any. I thus made the assumption CA didn’t do desserts, but later found their website to reveal New Year’s Eve and Winterlicious menus offering dessert options, including: a Nutella soufflé, tiramisu, creme caramel, and chocolate profiterole. It seeemed a bit odd if you did want dessert, but as I’m not much for sweets, I didn’t ask. It's possible they leave this aspect of the menu absent in the hopes of encouraging patrons to purchase post-meal digestifs to satisfy any sweet cravings. Which is exactly what I did with a straight up dirty martini. Dry, potent, simple, and classic, the Church Aperitivo dirty martini didn't pull any punches and came with a healthy four-olive garnish.

Church Aperitivo Tiramisu
Tiramisu. Photo by Church Aperitivo

Post Meal Feeling

The tapas layout of small-ish dishes left me feeling light and ready for whatever lay ahead. I had none of the tell-tale post-food fatigues that larger meals (and pastas) often induce, and while I did see folks ordering individual, full size meals, I would likely order the exact same array of small dishes if and when I were to return to Church Aperitivo.

Conclusion

Overall, while an enjoyable experience, with fresh food, an impressive interior, and attentive, pleasant service, Church Aperitivo is not the type of place I would return to for a sit down meal. The weekday happy hour appetizers-with-drink-purchase special is something I would consider. But for the price point, club-like interior, ambient noise level, and music video vibe (and that’s without even being there while a DJ was spinning), I would rather something cozier, quieter, and more intimate for either a solo meal, a date, or a group outing. I should temper this by saying that since Church Aperitivo is also a bar, the clubby atmosphere, plethora of black, and craft cocktails all go with the territory. If you’re looking for a club district, New York inspired, cocktaily night out, Aperitivo might be for you. It's worth checking out for sure.

Church Aperitivo by Steve D
Church Aperitivo by Steve D.

Church Aperitivo Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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2 thoughts on “Church Aperitivo

March 24, 2016 at 6:30 am
Olivia says:

I think Church Aperitivo was mostly meant as a bar with some easy snacking (tapas and so), not a fancy restaurant per se, that’s why they have mostly eposed bar seating and large tables. But it’s a great place for starting your night out!

April 6, 2016 at 7:32 am

How is this the first time I hear about this place? Looks really interesting, I’ll have to pay them a visit.

This is a really great review, by the way. Great work, Jamie!

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