Hometown: Brampton, Ontario
Occupation: Owner and Executive Chef, Buca Osteria & Enoteca, Buca Yorkville, Bar Buca; Managing Director, King Street Food Company
Years lived in Toronto: 17
Years worked as a chef: 17
Accolades: Buca ranked #3, Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants (2015)
Gold Award, Independent Restaurateur, Ontario Hostelry Institute (2015)
Bar Buca ranked #6, “Canada’s Best New Restaurants,” enRoute (2014)
Go to Chef Gentile’s shortlist
What do you love best about Toronto’s food scene?
There are a lot of young restaurateurs and chefs that are really pushing the boundaries. Every day there is a new concept, menu or style of cuisine that the city embraces. I love how people in Toronto’s dining scene support, but also challenge each other so it will always be really dynamic with fresh and innovative ideas that take restaurants to another level.
How have you seen the Italian dining scene in Toronto change over the years? What do you hope to see for it in the future?
Italian restaurants have come such a long way; it’s not just pizza or pasta anymore. Like my partners and I, a lot of places are sourcing amazing ingredients and using classic techniques. There are many restaurants that are focusing on different areas of the country. All three of our Bucas are different: our location on King focuses on inland Italian food and has a lot of meat on the menu, when our Yorkville location’s menu is fish/seafood focused, drawing inspiration from Italy’s coastal region.
The Italian dining scene has become more like Italy. You can eat at an Italian restaurant in Toronto every day of the week but will experience something different. I hope the scene continues to evolve so the city is able to fully experience Italy’s rich regional culinary diversity.
Name the top restaurants that you think every visitor to Toronto should try.
Actinolite is my top can’t-miss restaurant in Toronto. Justin [Cournoyer] is one of the most talented and passionate chefs I know. It’s quite the experience eating there. I’m a big fan.
I always have a great meal at Dandylion. I think Jason Carter is an incredibly talented chef.
I really love Indian food. Banjara on Bloor is my favorite in the city’s West End, and Lahore Tikka House in the East End for Pakistani. Two of the city’s best!
Bar Raval is my favorite new pintxos bar, arguably the city’s best, and Robin Goodfellow’s cocktails are always on point.
Porzia in Parkdale. Basilio Pesce is a genius!
Your menus change often based on season and supply. What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with, and are there any specific dishes at each of your restaurants that have become personal favorites?
My favorite dish to make in general is just a simple pasta pomodoro. For me, it’s like you put the best ingredients together to make that one special dish. It’s not just a can of tomatoes and dried pasta, a little basil and olive oil. It’s all about the best ingredients you can find, seasonal ripe tomatoes for sauce, wonderful fresh farm eggs from well-fed happy chickens to make the pasta, and your favorite pure first press olive oil to finish. We’re even blending tomato leaves into the pasta dough for more in-depth flavor. For me, this simple combination of ingredients truly identifies what Italian cuisine is all about.
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?
There are so many amazing and unique restaurants spread throughout the city so there is never really one area that I would choose over another. A couple of my favorite places happen to be on Ossington Ave., an area that has a ton of spots to choose from. The Saint is right in the heart of Ossington Village, and Actinolite is further north, a bit off the beaten path.
Describe your “perfect dining out day” in Toronto.
Breakfast at The Saint; the ham steak with grits and red-eye gravy is my go-to. Lunch would be drinks and pintxos at Bar Raval, and dinner at Dandylion.
What are some of your go-to places for when you want something cheap and quick?
I love a good burger from Burger’s Priest. They’ve got a really simple formula, and it just works. There’s a bit of a cult following for the “secret menu”; I go for their epic double-stacked burger, the High Priest.
What’s one dish in Toronto that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?
Basilio Pesce’s cavallo tonnato at Porzia. It’s a brilliant combination of horse and tuna and a take on the classic Italian vitello tonnato. Such an outstanding dish.
Since it’s Toronto, we have to ask: what are your favorite stores/stalls in St. Lawrence Market and Kensington Market?
At St. Lawrence Market, I like Scheffler’s Deli and Phil’s Place. At Kensington Market, my favorites are Hooked, Blackbird Baking Co. and Sanagan’s Meat Locker.
What food is your guilty pleasure, and where do you go to get it?
Since this is a site geared for travelers, are there any favorite restaurants or bars at Toronto Pearson Airport or in Toronto’s hotels that you particularly enjoy visiting?
You can never go wrong with Caplansky’s. It’s one of Toronto’s best delis and they happen to have a location at Pearson. Everyone should check it out if they have a chance.
Are there any snacks or foods native to Toronto that you particularly like and that visitors should seek out?
This city is made up so many different cultures so a lot of our “native” snacks reflect Toronto’s multiculturalism. To name a couple, at lots of places you can find poutine, which is originally from Quebec, dim sum places all over Chinatown, and amazing Italian porchetta sandwiches throughout the city; we’ve even got one at Bar Buca.
What would you say every visitor must see or do before leaving Toronto?
The Distillery District is a nice spot to spend an afternoon. It’s in a historical part of Toronto with lots of galleries, shops and restaurants.
Chef Gentile’s Shortlist:
Buca Osteria & Enoteca, 604 King Street West (King West); Italian, dinner only daily.
Buca Yorkville, 53 Scollard Street (Yorkville); Italian, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Bar Buca, 75 Portland Street (King West); Italian, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Actinolite, 971 Ossington Avenue (Dovercourt); new Canadian, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Dandylion, 1198 Queen Street West (West Queen West); European, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Banjara Indian Cuisine, 796 Bloor Street West (Christie Pits); Indian, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 164 Eglinton Avenue East (Sherwood Park); lunch and dinner daily.
Lahore Tikka House, 1365 Gerrard Street East (Leslieville); Pakistani/Indian, lunch and dinner daily.
Bar Raval, 505 College Street (Little Italy); Spanish, breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night daily.
Porzia, 1314 Queen Street West (Parkdale); Italian, dinner only Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.
The Saint Tavern, 227 Ossington Avenue (Ossington); new American, dinner Wednesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.
The Burger’s Priest, 463 Queen Street West (Queen West); burgers, lunch and dinner daily.
Multiple locations in Toronto area.
Scheffler’s Deli, 93 Front Street East (St. Lawrence Market); deli, open Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Phil’s Place, 93 Front Street East (St. Lawrence Market); produce stand, open Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Hooked, Kensington Avenue (Kensington Market); fish shop, open daily.
Blackbird Baking Co., 172 Baldwin Street (Kensington Market); bakery, open daily.
Sanagan’s Meat Locker, 176 Baldwin Street (Kensington Market); butcher shop, open daily.
Caplansky’s Delicatessen, Toronto Pearson International Airport, Terminals 1 and 3; deli, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
About the Chef: Ever since he was a little boy, Chef Rob Gentile was fascinated with food. “I was interested in being in my grandmother’s garden, in the kitchen rolling out gnocchi, and watching cooking shows,” he recalls. “I enjoyed eating and experiencing different tastes whether it was the Italian food always on the table at my family’s homes, or the different spices and flavors of food from other cultures.”
At 13, Gentile worked his first restaurant job. At 18, he decided to devote his career to Italian cooking, when he worked at Grazie and learned to cook with fresh ingredients and make everything from scratch.
He then worked for famed Chef Mark McEwan (North 44, Bymark), whom Gentile considers a mentor. He describes that time as “a sort of pinnacle in his career,” but also the most challenging environment he’s ever worked in; that time ultimately molded him into a professional.
In 2009, Gentile ventured on his own and opened his first restaurant, Buca Osteria & Enoteca; six years on, it continues to be a dining hotspot in the city, and in 2015, it was named the third best restaurant in all of Canada (and best in Ontario) by Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants. A sister snack bar, Bar Buca, opened in early 2014, while a second Buca restaurant – this one emphasizing seafood – opened in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood in 2014.