Za Cafe Pizzeria and Bar (Toronto)

Behind all the scaffolding on Bay, you’ll find Za Cafe Pizzeria and Bar. It’s a bit of a dark horse, the former Gaberdine’s white walls washed with black, although the worn bar seating remains. The place doesn’t scream warm trattoria or even minimalistic pizza joint, it’s more of an emo Italian restaurant that happens to play energetic dance beats. A great place for after work drinks but would be a shame if you left before having a bite.

Because although Za doesn’t feel like a trattoria, their food is nonetheless comforting Italian fare. The beef carpaccio ($17) lays out large slices of raw beef tenderloin that’s liberally seasoned with salt, lemon juice, and very little oil. While it doesn’t have the drizzles of aioli that typically graces a Canadian carpaccio, there’s tons of flavours from pickled bell peppers, brined caper berries, and thick shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s a rustic carpaccio and would be even better if the salt was toned down a bit.

The burrata pizza ($21) special had a similar vein, the white pizza foundation just lightly brushed with oil, so the paper-thin crust remained wonderfully crispy and light. While the base was sauceless, the pie was still so flavourful from the herb and garlic base, tons of arugula, bright cherry tomatoes, and a ball of cool creamy burrata that went so nicely with the crispy hot dough. How do we get this special to be on the permanent menu?

I’m glad we tried their house made pasta as the curly strands of casarecce were perfectly done, chewy but still soft – almost like a pasta and gnocchi hybrid. The pasta’s crevices helped to scoop up the shrimp cognac’s ($24) creamy cognac rosé sauce, which was rich but refreshing. We were surprised by the generous portion of six tablespoon sized shrimp that topped the dish, more than enough to go around while sharing.

The pesto green ($17) was also large with plenty of the basil sauce so that it seeps into the tubular garganelli. The small dollops of ricotta were a nice touch, but there needed to be more of it. 

While the seafood spaghetti’s ($28) presentation wasn’t the greatest, the dish contained a decent selection of seafood: shrimp, salmon, calamari, mussels, and clams. Like the other pastas, Za didn’t skimp on the ingredients as there was plenty of it. Often, pasta that’s fresh is best, but on the odd occasion I prefer the dried variety. For spaghetti this is the case, as I found the fresh version too doughy and soft.

Interestingly, Za uses a spicy tomato white wine sauce with the seafood spaghetti. The heat was evident but doesn’t necessarily add to the dish. In retrospect, I would have preferred a traditional non-spicy sauce instead.

The Basque cheesecake ($12) is ideal for sharing as it’s sizeable. While it was well caramelized, that slightly toasted taste wasn’t pronounced… it pretty much tasted like any other cheesecake. Perhaps it’s because the mixture was too dense, not the light creamy consistency you’d expect from a Basque.  

Za’s tiramisu ($9) was a let down. It consisted of a lot of whipped cream and cocoa powder and very little lady fingers and mascarpone. At least it was a flavourful dessert, albeit basic and without a zip of zabaglione, which is disappointing compared to their other rustic fares. 

If you can look past all the construction and darkness, Za Café Pizzeria and Bar is an ideal place for an inexpensive meal or a pre-theatre dinner prior to heading to the Ed Mirvish or Elgin theatres, a short walk from the area. Just bring a friend as deciding between pizza or pasta will be terribly unpleasant. The answer is to just have both. 

Overall mark - 7.5 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 372 Bay Street

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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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