CLOSED: La Cascina (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 1552 Avenue Road
Type of Meal: Dinner

When an Italian friend recommends an Italian restaurant, you know it has to be decent. Located on Avenue Road directly across from the luxury grocery store Pusataries and sandwiched between a Greek restaurant and a dry cleaner, La Cascina has an unassuming façade and might be missed.  But, someone must know it’s there because we found the restaurant 80% full with the remaining tables reserved – our table sat ready for us with a personalized reservation sign on it.

What you’ll find at La Cascina is authentic cuisine from the Abruzzo region.  No, it’s not the meatballs of Sicily or the pizza of Naples.  Instead, Chef Rosso serves up stewed legumes & vegetables, whole fishes and house made pastas doused with fragrant olive oil. 

Having owned a restaurant in Italy, he came to Canada and decided to restart the restaurant (with the same name) to share the “agriturismo” experience with Canadians.  What exactly is this?  It’s the concept of “agriculture tourism” popular in Italy that invites tourists to go to rural resorts and enjoy meals produced with locally farmed ingredients. Of course, it’s doubtful everything served at La Cascina is made in Toronto, but the understatedly presented dishes of wholesome foods sure taste homemade.

La Cascina isn’t a place to visit to grab a quick bite.  Service is unhurried with our meal turning into a three hour affair. Upon being seated water is poured but some time goes by before the wine menu is presented.  Dinner menus came afterwards allowing customers to focus on one thing at a time.  

How food is ordered is an interesting concept – first you receive a menu with only the chef’s selections of the day, after having time to peruse this then the full menu is given.  Who were we to argue with what the chef knows best? We stuck with his recommendations for the antipasto, pasta and because we visited on a Friday could also try their famed fish.  The waitress warns that sharing is encouraged as serving sizes are large and meat dishes arrive without sides so ordering just the fish would make for an interesting meal.

A standard plate of bread arrives, which in itself is nothing special.  What makes it shine is the great olive oils that accompany it – one plain and the other spicy.  The plain one has such a robust taste; it’s making me reconsider purchasing the Greek variety and buying Abruzzo region ones instead. 

The antipasto La Cascina ($28 for two people) began with a charcuterie dish with two slices of capicola, salami and sopressata.  All were not overly salty with a light curing so that the taste of the spices shone through, the sopressata was my favourite with some heat left on the tongue after eating.  On the red cabbage were slices of cheese that is a harder variety but yet smooth in texture and doesn’t crumble which was enjoyable.  

Dishes in the middle contained white beans mixed with pickled onion and garlic which was surprisingly delicious and I’d like to have as a bean salad any day.  Large green olives were in the other and not overly briny so even people who detest olives may want to try these. Lastly, slices of paper thin pears were on the platter adding some sweetness to the dish in place of the typical cantaloupe.

The second part of the antipasto were five clay pots containing hot stewed items including spelt with sundried tomatoes (one of my favourite dishes and cooked well so that the grains broke through and had a slight creaminess to it), lentils with carrots (surprisingly rich on account of being stewed in olive oil), eggplant with scrambled eggs (simple and tastes exactly as it sounds), stewed beets (enjoyed that they didn’t add any further sweet elements to it so that the naturalness of the beets were showcased) and dandelions with turbot (the greens were lightly wilted so it retained its crispiness while the fish had an interesting brined texture without being salted).

Next came a bowl of fettuccine con castagne, funghi e fagioli ($20) which was the highlight of the meal. The pasta was thicker and wider than most fettuccini and although cooked al dante was still soft throughout and had some elasticity. Unlike other pastas, there wasn’t a drop of marinara or cream in it.  Rather, the pasta, chestnuts, mushrooms and white beans were flavoured with a simple oil and herb mixture that was delicious.  The dish was certainly large enough for sharing and even though made with simple ingredients was fairly flavourful with hints of earthiness throughout.

You may know the orata con finocchio ($44) as sea bream or brandini.  This white fish arrived whole with the middle spine removed, stuffed with fennel and celery then roasted whole. It was cooked perfectly so that the fish flaked apart but was still tender and moist.  The stuffing really didn’t add much in terms of taste but I have a feeling helped keep the moistness in the fish.  I personally enjoy simply prepared fresh fish so found this dish pleasant.  But, there were still smaller bones left around some areas of the fish so I’d be mindful while eating to avoid any hazards.

Accompanying the fish was a simple mixed salad ($6) made with arugula, romaine, tomato and a dressing of olive oil & light red wine vinegar. I like the Italian tradition of ending with salad because the acid from the vinegar helps with digestion and if you’re really stuffed you can easily skip this course.

The only disappointment of the night was the dessert, tiramisu di Luca ($8), where we didn’t follow the chef’s suggestion – always stick with what he suggests!  My friend and I both found it way too sweet and lacked the espresso flavour we were craving that would help cut through the sugar and moisten the lady fingers.  La Cascina’s version is topped with chopped chocolate shavings rather than unsweetened chocolate powder which adds a crunchiness against the smoothness of the mascarpone cheese.  Some may like the contrast, but I prefer this dish in its traditional format so could have done without the hard chocolate bits.

La Cascina’s vibe is great; the unhurried service where conversations are encouraged and time given to savour each course.  The staff were always attentive frequently filling our water and wine glasses and cleaning off the tables of all crumbs in between each course.  A jovial atmosphere exists with patrons laughing loudly giving you a sense of how life may be like in a small rural village.  So, if you’re coming for a romantic date, I suggest you try requesting a table by the window which may help you focus more on your date. All in all, I love the authenticness of La Cascina’s creations and look forward to trying more of Chef Rosso’s delightful pastas.

Overall mark - 8.5 out of 10

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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