“Gusto” in Italian means “tasty.” Thus, Gusto 101 means Tasty 101 – as in, experiencing this restaurant at 101 Portland St in Toronto would be like an introduction to all things delicious. Delicious Food for Dummies, essentially. The restaurant serves classic southern Italian dishes, each with a bit of a twist, and is also a micro-winery. Yes. Gusto 101 has wine on tap. And, the wine sells for one dollar an ounce. Woah. The restaurant also has gluten-free pasta options and are happy to make dairy-free modifications for anyone with dietary restrictions or preferences.
Gusto 101, located between Bathurst St and Spadina Ave in Toronto’s Fashion District, is unique at first glance. The Italian trattoria makes an abandoned, industrial auto body shop their home, thanks to Munge Leung, a leading interiors firm in the city. The environment is both rustic and classy, while also being cozy and fun.
I went to Gusto 101 for a double-birthday on Thursday, April 3. I was earlier than the friends I was meeting, but when I arrived, so did about 20 other eager, hungry nine to fivers. Within a minute, though, I was sitting at a neatly set table decorated with a lit candle. About a minute later, my server brought me a bottle of water and three glasses. I didn’t even have to ask.
I’m a bit curious when I go to a new restaurant, especially if I plan on writing a review about it. I look around. I see what people are doing and what they’re saying. I check out the crowd and try to see if I, as a 23-year-old, fit in. Everyone was dressed trendy, yet casual. Though some people were more dressed up, I assumed they were coming from the Financial District, perhaps leaving big-bank jobs for the day, thirsty for some vino. I’d say the age of people at Gusto 101 ranged between 20 to 35-years-old. I also happened to notice a family with two small children enjoying a happy dinner together.
The servers, cooks and other staff, who seemed a tad younger than the age range previously mentioned, were wearing Gusto 101 gear. Yup, it exists, and guests can buy it too. According to this sign, pictured right, posted in the restaurant near the kitchen, Gusto-inspired denim, t-shirts and caps can all be purchased right there at 101 Portland.
Worth the investment? I don’t think so, but maybe for a diehard fan. I’m curious to know how many items Gusto has actually sold since it opened in February 2012.
Now onto more important details about Gusto 101 – the food. Aside from the never-ending wine list, pictured left, Gusto has various daily specials, antipasti, fritti (fried appetizers), salads, pastas, pizzas, food from right off the grill and classic Italian desserts, like biscotti and gelato.
Myself and the lovely ladies I had the pleasure of celebrating their birthday with each ordered a glass of wine. One friend and I had the house white wine, a Pinot Grigio, and my other friend had the house red, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.
When we ordered our wine, we noticed other tables were getting freshly baked focaccia and bread from an epic bread wall (see below). It was getting busy at this point, so we forgive our server for possibly getting side-tracked. We asked for some bread and were served within moments. Note: The bread also comes with olive oil and vinegar for dipping.
To start, my friends and I ordered the Arancini, rice balls made with arborio rice, wild mushrooms, fontina and tomato sauce. I have had a number of rice balls in my day, thanks to my grandmother’s epic skills from the homeland, and restaurant arancini never, ever come close. Despite my high standards for this dish, I loved the wild mushroom risotto twist and immediately thought: I have to try to make these at home. After just one bite, I was also taken back to the first time I went to Italy and ate creamy mushroom risotto while facing the beautiful Adriatic Sea. Ten points for to the Tasty place for making awesome fried apps.
For my main, I went with the Thursday special: Galletta alla Brace, which is grilled cornish hen, rapini, papas bravas, leeks, beets and potatoes. Why did I splurge? I come from an Italian family and when we do cornish hen, we do it well. I also am in a very loving relationship with rapini, beets and potatoes, so for me, making a decision was as easy as finishing a glass of white on a Friday night.
My two friends went with pizza. One ordered the Salsicce, a pizza with tomato, mozzarella, ground spicy sausage and roasted peppers. The other had the Polpette pizza, which is with tomatoes, mozzarella, meatballs and smoked provolone.
When my food came, I was in heaven. Obviously, nothing tastes as good as home, but this came pretty close. The potatoes were flavourful, the rapini weren’t overcooked and the cornish hen was tender and crunchy in all the right places. Judging by the looks on my friends’ faces, they were enjoying their pizzas, too.
I would definitely go back to Gusto 101. I’d love to try their pasta, which is not something an Italian will say every day. We sort of have this weird fear of trying pasta that wasn’t “fatto in casa” (or made at home). I’m also half Abruzzese, which makes me even more obsessed with the homemade stuff (and more stubborn, too).
If you’re wondering about the restaurant’s price range, the cheapest pizza is $13.50 and the most expensive dish is served on Saturday nights only – a Costata di Manzo, or a 10-oz ribeye, roasted potatoes, sautéed rapini with red wine reduction. This goes for $38.50.
Whether out to celebrate or just feeling like some classic Italian with world-wide influences, check out Gusto 101. Your wallet won’t take a seriously hard hit, you won’t feel guilty for going for a second or third piece of bread and you’ll enjoy the environment just as much as the food.
Where’s your favourite Italian restaurant in the City of Toronto?