Rob Gentile, one of Toronto’s top chefs, talks to us about cooking authentic Italian cuisine in Canada.
“Artisanal Italian” is how Chef Gentile describes the dishes he serves at his three highly acclaimed Toronto restaurants: Buca, Bar Buca, and Buca Yorkville. “Italian cuisine is a product of the environment, tradition and season. It’s whatever grows in a particular region meeting the tradition of that region. So cooking Italian food for me means using local fresh produce and cooking it using Old World practices.”
With his mother hailing from Lazio and his father from Abruzzo, Chef Gentile’s Italian culinary education started early, even if it was in North York, just outside Toronto. “We grew every vegetable in the world in our backyard, and we had fruit trees – plum, apple, pear, apricot. We preserved everything!” He watched his dad make salumi, and they even enjoyed fresh eggs from a few backyard hens.
Enthusiasm, research and respect for authenticity is at the heart of Chef Gentile’s approach. For his famed Roman-style pizza, his team put many hours into the final recipe: “We tested and tested and tested the dough. We use bread and semolina flour, so it’s got a good chew to it. I’m very proud of this dish.” To that end, Chef Gentile has been on over a dozen research trips to Italy for inspiration. “I’ve only just scratched the surface – there is always something new to discover!” One discovery that made it onto his bar menu is a tasty Sicilian specialty: stigghiola. “I was driving, and I saw a long line of cars parked alongside the road, all waiting for these grilled rolls of scallions, wrapped in caul fat, with lamb intestine coiled all around it, served with a squeeze of fresh lemon. I think it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted, and it’s street-meat there!”
And while Chef Gentile turns to local farmers for fresh meats, seafood, and produce – like any good Italian chef would – there are certain items that must come from Italy, including Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Calabria. Most of the pasta in his restaurant is made in-house, but when he does use dried pasta, it must come from Gragnano, a town in Campania that has been making world-renowned pastas for centuries. “I could eat pasta with a perfect pomodoro sauce and a few leaves of fresh basil morning, noon, and night!”