With high-rise buildings popping up as fast as they can build them, and the major Eglinton Crosstown project, Yonge and Eglinton is a neighbourhood that is rapidly becoming a major intersection in downtown Toronto. As with any changing neighbourhood, the staples — the places people have always known about, but which relish their under-the-radar reputation — are often the best discoveries. Grazie website boasts that they’ve been operating for 25 years, and it’s the simplicity of their approach — simple Italian dishes done properly — that’s behind that success.
Beet Appetizer by Grazie
Grazie is unassuming, in a way. It forgoes the minimalist, fine dining approach in favour of a simple — if expected — Italian decor, in a space that has been organized to maximize the number of tables. To some, this might be a turnoff, but I would argue that it is one of Grazie’s strengths, rather. With cliche Italian decor and plenty of tables, the message that the restaurant sends is clear: you’re here to eat, and let’s help you do that.
The walls are styled to look and feel like you are in a small restaurant somewhere in everyday Italy; there are paintings on the walls, and posters for Birra Moretti, and other Italian staples. Vines hand over the entrance to the kitchen. The wood accents give the restaurant an old, worn-in comfort that, as the snow started blowing harder and harder outside, made it feel warmer and warmer inside. Nothing about the decor will sweep you off your feet, but I get the sense that it was never intended to. What’s left is familiarity and comfort.
Even shortly after 5 p.m., when I walked in, there were small crowds gathering. You can overhear people talking about what they’re going to order "this time," suggesting to me that the atmosphere is a comfortable one, filled with people who feel at home here. As more people file in this continues: one couple orders without looking at the menu, for instance. Coupled with the homestyle Italian food, it feels distinctly as if you’ve stumbled upon something that others did long before you — not quite a hidden gem, but a restaurant that once you take a chance on, delivers.
Bruschetta by Grazie
If there’s anything better than good Italian food, it’s an enormous selection of good Italian food — and on that point, Grazie makes good. The menu spares nothing, packing dozens of dishes into two pages. The pasta section is split into four categories — divided by sauce type, be it tomato, cream based, blush sauce, or oil — each with almost ten dishes. That’s in addition to an entire pizza section as well. On top of that, there’s a wide range of salads and appetizers. All of which is suffice to say that selection is not a problem.
I went with a staple: bruschetta. ($6.75) Often times, I steer clear of bruschetta, since it tends to be over-toasted and weighed down by too much topping. I was happy to see that the bruschetta here came deconstructed, letting me put as much (or as little) tomato on my bread as I’d like.
The bread came toasted, but still very moist and rich. The topping was simple: tomatoes, oil, and some herbs. Nothing fancy, but the simplicity of it was perhaps its greatest strength. Rather than hide the natural sweetness of tomatoes, Grazie’s bruschetta keeps it front and centre. The herbs serve as a highlight, rather than standing in the way.
The bruschetta was a small order -- only five pieces of toast -- and I ate an entire order myself with ease. Just something to keep in mind.
I chose the Tasca dish ($17.50), which was a single large stuffed pasta with ricotta, spinach, and brie. IT was the brie that sold me — I don’t see brie in pastas very often, and it was the perfect cheese to balance the ricotta and spinach. The creamy porcini tomato sauce was full of flavour, and I was given a liberal helping. My only complaint about the dish might be that there was more stuffing than pasta, but I was happy to scoop up any that had fallen out with the bread.
Maybe the best part about this dish was the sauce. Cream sauces can often feel excessively milky, and some of the sharp vegetable flavours washed out. While this sauce was creamy, it also maintained the pointed flavour of a good tomato sauce, while leaning heavily on the richness afforded by the creamy base. There was plenty of sauce, and yet I still wanted more of it. I highly recommend any of the pastas served with the suga di pomodoro cremosa sauce.
The desert was the point where it most felt like Grazie was phoning it in. While the creme brulee cheesecake ($8) wasn’t not good, per se, it’s hard to argue that it lived up to the rest of the meal, either. It didn’t taste especially fresh, and while it was a tasty treat, I wouldn’t spend $8 on it again. It felt like the sort of dessert that one could find at a high-end grocery store or bakery.
The dessert menu had a wide range of options, though, and I wouldn’t want to discount the whole of the restaurant’s selections simply based on one dish.
Drinks by Grazie
Like any good Italian restaurant, the staple was the wine list. In addition to a healthy beer selection and what appeared to be a well-stocked bar, the wine list offered a couple dozen wines from around the world, in addition to a sizeable section of Italian wines, beginning at affordable prices, and rising from there. Much in keeping with the rest of the restaurant’s atmosphere, nothing on the wine list felt especially pretentious or contrived — just a good selection of wines.
A shout-out here to the coffee, which though a simple order, carried its weight. After a long day (and some time spent in the snow), a coffee was just what I needed, and Steven, my server, went out of his way to improve upon my "cup of black coffee" order to bring me an Americano with some steamed milk on the side. I’m glad he did because it was a surprisingly good cup. I am a caffeine junkie, and doing a simple coffee well will always impress me.
It always throws servers off when they serve a single person. I’ve spent time travelling, where eating alone is something you get used to. Truth be told, while I like dining with friends, there’s a certain indulgence to sitting down to eat by yourself. Servers, though, tend to do all they can to try to mitigate the awkwardness that they think you’re feeling. On one hand, I’m used to this. On the other, it can really work to the server’s advantage. Steven, my server, was happy to chat about various things on the menu, improve my coffee order, and chat about the book I was reading. I was never rushed, even though I admit I was taking up a prime table by the window by myself. The food came out at a nice, measured pace, and he was quick to check in to make sure there was nothing else I needed.
Pork Tenderloin by Grazie
Full, as one should be after a homestyle Italian meal. Though Grazie was a bit outside the downtown core, I was certainly happy I made the trek — Yonge and Eglinton is a booming neighbourhood, and it feels nice to have found a restaurant there that I’d definitely return to. Places like Grazie are the best finds, but also sometimes the hardest: it isn’t the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of fine dining, but neither does it have a rugged hole-in-the-wall appeal. What it has is good food, done simply and done well. In a growing neighbourhood like Yonge and Eg, it is sure to gain more loyal diners, and I hope that doesn’t change it one bit.