Joanna's Take on...Vertical
My relationship with Vertical is a bit like the chicken and the egg. Not long after Giacomo Pasquini took over the helm as Vertical’s executive chef I met him in a field. Yes, a field making Ontario red fife flour pasta by hand and a gorgeous local farm driven meaty Bolognese. This was without running water and cooked over fire. This was Feast of Fields and Giac was my new bestie and hero. The chicken and the egg saying is apt in that did I go toward becoming friends with the chef or did I love his food first? Probably a bit of both.
Once I saw what he could do in a field I knew I had to go to First Canadian Place and sit at a table and be fed by this man. I was not, nor have I ever been disappointed. As you all now know, I write only about the places I think you should go. I have sent many people to Vertical. They have never been anything but overjoyed.
When I first went to Vertical I was introduced to a very gentle thoughtful man named Joe Alberti. Joe is the head of wine and, I would dare say, the face of the restaurant. In a very old world style Joe lets you know you have come to his home and he welcomes you as such. The one and, unfortunately, only time I brought my late Father to Vertical he and Joe hit it off to such a point Joe sat down and joined us for a conversation. This was unusual, but these men were unusual as well. My point is expect to leave happy, expect to leave as family. Now, meet my pals Stephano who is the manager and bartender/mixologist extraordinaire and Raino, headwaiter and all around super guy. They will make your stay perfect.
Joe Alberti has been in the restaurant biz forever doing time at the esteemed Auberge du Pommier and Centro back in their heydays. Biaggio and Romagna Mio were his last stops before opening Vertical. This is also where the worlds of Giacomo and Joe converge. Giacomo had been working for 1 and 2 star Michelin restaurants in Italy. He was asked to compete in an under 21-chef competition in Luxembourg where he met Gabriella from Romagna Mia who was looking for a consultant. Giac came to Toronto and in the kitchen he met his future father in law! He also met Joe who aksed him to run Vertical but he wasn’t ready yet. So, off he and Josie, his new bride, went to Italy. However, Josie had school in Toronto so back they came. Giacomo then entered the Vertical kitchen under now good friend and talent Tawfik Shehata.
To this day Giac says he owes such a great deal to this man for helping him with an understanding of how to assimilate to Canadian’s and Torontonian’s in particular. Tawfik also paved the way for many strong kitchen to farm relationships that Giacomo still enjoys working with today.
Giacomo has a very modern and new world approach to assimilation. He strongly believes in his heritage but feels that in order to live in a new country one must also adopt that countries ways and not dig your heels into old habits. This philosophy shines through at Vertical. It is very much an Italian restaurant but the approach to food is both very old world and very modern. There is not a minute you feel that stuck in the 80’s Canadian Italian food and style.
When Giac came to Canada he was amazed how passionate we were about farm to table and what a huge big deal this was. In Italy, as in most of the “old world”, this is how one eats. Not country is lucky enough to fly foods from around the world, so in Canada we can eat asparagus from Peru in February. This has its positives and negatives. Personally, I don't like to eat foods from other countries and to the best of my ability I focus in on local and seasonality as much as possible. I will not eat asparagus in the winter, corn in the spring or strawberries year round. Vertical and the team feel the same way.
Giacomo says the main goal of the restaurant is for them to do the best job possible. What does he mean by this? He believes he has the tools to educate people into how to eat well and with the seasons. Vertical scours all of Italy for great recipes and styles and then adapts them to our produce. Giacomo heralds’ from the Marche region, which is, smack dab in the middle of the land and the sea. He was raised to respect the food they eat and never to waste. A funny story was a few years back I was eating this incredible fish dish with what I thought was lemon mousse weird but incredibly good. Giacomo was watching the bar and his bakery use the lemon skins and juice but hey, what about all that pith? You heard correctly, pith. Giacomo said in his kitchen nothing goes to waste and it doesn’t. He boiled this pith, I believe it was 7 times, to remove the bitterness and then turned it into this cream, less sweet, unctuous and light as air sauce.
Joe hails from the land of the sun, Sicily. He has an incredible passion for cult wines from both here and the rest of the world. While working for the Wine Makers Group, Joe established many good relationships with winemakers from around the world who often visit the restaurant for a wine makers evening. This is an event not to be missed. One of Joe’s darlings is a winery named "Cos" out of Sicily. It is 3 winemakers that met in university who just wanted to twist and bend the rules. They have continued to experiment and push the envelope. They only use grapes that grown in the region and have gone back to their roots by aging their wine in ceramic amphora’s. As much as Giacomo is passionate about local Ontario, Joe has his favourites as well, Tawes, 30 Bench and 13th Street to name a few. We also agreed that one darling of Ontario is Henry of Pelham’s Cuvee Catherine Sparkling rose.
Come visit the patio for the lovely spring to fall season. It is 4 floors up and away from the traffic and the dirt. Call ahead so you can settle back on a couch, or sit at a very comfortable well-spaced table. I love it here. I look around and as much as I love the forest with the trees, this concrete jungle never fails to astound. Think of this financial centre of Canada and all that happens in the few surrounding blocks. The play of modern and old architecture is also quite fabulous. There is a super fun, big bar where I often will hang for a bruscettone smothered in Fontina and shaved truffles and a bowl of pasta when I want to come in jeans. The main room is so fabulous. The tables again are perfectly spaced and there is no uncomfortable noise level. This is truly something in a town of hard surfaced, ultra noisy places.
Come hungry because, one thing is for sure, that wonderful Italian warmth and the joy of feeding people is always forefront. I can’t really tell you what to eat because as we have discussed the menu is constantly changing. What I can tell you is not to miss eating some form of fish. The crudo’s; raw fish are incredible using only sustainable fish that are ocean wise approved, as are the cooked fish and seafood. The pastas are always perfect using again only the freshest of ingredients and making the silky smooth pasta to either stuff or smother. For a nibble grab Giac’s addictive chickpea fries with homemade roasted red pepper dip. Desserts are also incredible. This is usually an area in which Italian restaurants do not succeed, as often fruit and Grappa are often dessert in Italy. This is not the case at Vertical. I have included my so to speak “Last Supper” with great shots so you can at least get an idea of what I ate. Before I go off into a new direction I do want to give kudos to Giacomo’s hard working kitchen staff including Jon Ward who is the Chef du Cuisine and all around super guy. The front off the house staff also must get their dues as not only incredibly professional but they lead you through an ever changing menu very smoothly.
Now, a very quick aside, the team of Joe Alberti, Giacomo Pasquini and 2 other partners are opening in Woodbridge a new Grab and Go, but stop for an espresso or glass of vino kind of place named Porcello. Porcello’s mandate is to bring back tradional Italian with integrity. This means, yes there will be porchetta but with heritage Mennonite pigs, a hot table that will be filled with traditional but properly cooked dishes using the best local ingredients. The team behind Porcello has even brought a master baker from Italy to create such treats as Marittozzi, lovely sweet bread with either chocolate or raisins from Giacomo’s childhood. He will also be creating cornetto filled with local fruit and wicked focaccia to name a few. Woodbridge and all the people like me willing to drive for incredible food will also be in luck as Porcello will be using Dolce Lucano to supply salumi in all it tradional ways with respect to time honoured recipes.
So there you have it, two great places for the price of one. One is fine dining at its best and the other old school charm abounding.
Please let me know if you visit Vertical and Porcello. Let me know your thoughts and tell the guys Joanna sent you.
Vertical Restaurant and Bar
First Canadian Place,
100 King St W,
125 Hawkview Blvd.