At two exacting pasta shops, some of the best fresh noodles of your life
Leandro Baldassarre spent the bulk of his food career, nearly half of his life, as a valued but anonymous background player—first, from eighteen years old, as a cook at Splendido, and then, in his twenties, making the primi at Ristorante dal Pescatore, in what might be one of the most important traditional Italian restaurants on Earth.
He spent three years in that kitchen in the countryside near Mantua, making sure, as he puts it, that the eggs were cracked and the pasta fillings were ready. In 2010, back home in Toronto, he started a one-man basement business selling small-batch pasta like he’d eaten in his time there.
Mr. Baldassarre supplied Nota Bene first, then a growing list of city restaurants. It was the best-made pasta many people in the city had ever tried. If you swooned in those days over a plate of noodles at a high-end Toronto address, chances are good they were made by Mr. Baldassarre’s hand.
And he might have continued quietly like that, as your favourite dinner-spot’s semolina-shrouded secret, if he hadn’t one day begun casually serving his handiwork to the customers at his factory on Geary Avenue. That’s what many small-scale pasta makers do in Italy, said Mr. Baldassarre, now 34. They put out a table or two and a couple of chairs. Even today, he seems surprised at how quickly his lunchtime Società Pasta Baldassarre caught on.
It’s caught on to the point that half-hour (and longer) sidewalk waits are the standard now. This is enough of an inconvenience, presumably, to put off a lot of Mr. Baldassarre’s would-be customers.
But if if you think you have better things to do with your weekdays than to wait in line for a plate of pasta, allow me to propose another possibility: for Mr. Baldassarre’s pastas in particular, there’s a very good chance that you don’t.
He makes egg noodles (tagliatelle, pappardelle, sfoglie, etc.) and eggless ones (cavatelli, troccoli), extruded pastas (rigatoni, spaghettoni, perciatelli) and stuffed (a spectacular recent special: sweet corn mixed with ricotta cheese). What unifies them all, with the exception, perhaps, of some of the stuffed ones, is that the noodle comes first. Mr. Baldassarre’s pasta is a celebration of the pasta itself, when in North America, pasta is almost always about the sauce.
His egg-based sheet pasta in particular, the tagliatelle and pappardelle, the chitarrine and tonnarelli, taste rich and substantial, dense and silky textured, gorgeous in a slip of sauce. They’re food instead of filler, marigold-hued from egg yolks and imbued with an appetite-affirming chew.
His stuffed pastas, too, are masterpieces of judgment and craft. One day this spring, over a dish of chard and ricotta tortelloni, I couldn’t stop marvelling at how strange and fat and delicious those dumplings were. The ricotta inside them tasted sweet and light and creamy when ricotta is usually forgettable; the chard was deep, verdant green and charged with fresh iodine minerality. The dough enveloping them was firm and rich: it somehow stood on equal ground. That plate of pasta cost $13. (Baldassarre’s wholesale business underwrites his weekday lunch trade.) “There are $40 plates of pasta in this city that aren’t half as good as this,” my lunch mate said.
Another day, Mr. Baldassarre’s kitchen filled small, Piedmontese-style agnolotti with simple braised beef, and sauced them with good butter (they use Stirling) and sage and a dribble of reduced braising liquid. I’ve eaten lesser agnolotti in Piedmont itself.
And it would be hard to overstate the simple decadence of a basic plate of noodles here—of his tagliatelle with nothing but cheese and butter and a splash of pasta water to melt and loosen them.
If only lunch out could always be this great.
Mr. Baldassarre’s pasta-making secret is that there isn’t one. He uses only flour and whole eggs in much of his work, at the more-or-less standard ratio of 100 grams of flour to each egg. He is obsessive about those two ingredients, though. He spends far too much of his days worrying about his eggs’ lutein content and freshness and the hue of the yolks’ carotenoids. “I can’t tell you how many eggs I’ve purchased and not liked,” he said.
He sources his flour from Italy. He can talk for hours about the data that tell you when a flour is right: about peak strength and protein content, about proper milling and the importance of measuring mineral content, and how all those play out in a raviolo’s sheen and colour, bite and oxidation rate. “It’s really mathematical,” said Mr. Baldassarre. When you do one thing obsessively in the background for years, that’s the sort of expertise you gain.
There is typically a salad or a steamed vegetable available as a contorno, as well as slices of house-baked white bread (“Clean your plate!” a sign instructs), and $6 plates of top-quality sliced meat. For dessert, Mr. Baldassarre sells gelato bars from the excellent Bar Ape. (See today’s review of Bar Ape here.) If you like a coffee after your lunch, Baldassarre customers get a discount at the Dark Horse espresso bar next door.
Which I write in part to emphasize that Baldassarre is not your usual lunching spot. The service here is counter service, and cash-only; if you’re eating in, they’ll hold your order until you’ve found space to sit, and please do not linger once you’re done. The room is crowded (always) and hot (sometimes). I’ve usually joined the lineup at around 11:40, and started eating by 12:10. To my mind, all that hassle is worth it, and then some.
Just as important, Baldassarre’s lunch service can’t help feeling ephemeral to me—like something that might be a little too good to last. Mr. Baldassarre’s business is making and selling the best uncooked pasta possible to premium-paying restaurant clients. The lunch thing, he said, “is pure enjoyment.” He added that he’ll continue it for only as long as that enjoyment part holds out.
“It’s purely to give people a taste of how I feel about pasta. It may not be glamorous, it may not be super-beautiful on a plate, it may not have complicated ingredients, but I don’t want to overcomplicate it,” he said. “I want it to be a pure expression of what pasta is to me.”
A few minutes west, on Roncesvalles Avenue, Chris and Sarah Terpstra take a similar approach to pasta at the year-old shop they run called Alimentari. Though he’s from Regina originally, Mr. Terpstra spent much of his childhood in Florence and Bologna; his father is a renaissance historian. “The school lunches that I would get were unreal,” he said. All told, Mr. Terpstra, who is 29, has spent a third of his life in Italy.
Those lunches made an impact. Early in his first year at The University of Toronto, he started a stage in the kitchen at Didier. “I started working there for six, seven days a week and not going to class,” he said.
His cooking apprenticeship took him to a farm in Sienna, and to the butcher Dario Cecchini’s shop and restaurants in Chianti, where he spent a year. Mr. Terpstra worked two years at the original Buca, on King Street West, one of those as the restaurant’s lead pasta maker. He led a typically peripatetic cook’s life: back to Sienna, to the farm and then to a trattoria, to Enoteca Sociale, then to Sanagan’s Meat Locker, where he worked as head butcher for a spell.
Sarah, who he met at that farm in Italy, is from Michigan, originally. She’d studied nutrition in New York then done a short spell in chef school. She was about to open a restaurant when they met. Alimentari was a means to get Mr. Terpstra back to what he loved the most.
The shop is a more-or-less traditional Italian grocery. They sell fresh and jarred sauces and dry goods, breads from Blackbird Baking Co., vinegars, oils, dried imported pastas and some of the city’s best dried beans. But it’s what happens in the shop’s kitchen (they took over the space that Hopgood’s Foodliner once occupied) and pasta lab that most distinguishes the place.
Mr. Terpstra, much like Mr. Baldassarre, is a perfectionist at heart. A bonus: you don’t have to line up for a table here.
Alimentari’s menu is also chalkboard-based and also seasonal. (Much as in most of Italy, Mr. Terpstra buys whatever is great and in season by the case-load, and typically cooks with it until it’s gone.) The pasta here is also without question some of the best in the city. Where it differs slightly from Mr. Baldassarre’s is that at Alimentari, pasta and sauce typically live on an equal plain.
The tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms the other week was a case in point: the mushrooms, cut into cubes and given a sear, were meaty and exquisite and impossible to not pay attention to; they’d been tossed, along with the noodles and butter, in a made-to-order pan sauce that was enriched with the liquid from soaking dried mushrooms. Which part was memorable, the pasta or the mushroom sauce that dressed it? The mushrooms, I can say without a doubt. But I can’t say I stopped to care that much. And in any case, it was a steal at $22.
Earlier this spring, Mr. Terpstra made superb little gnocchi that were dyed deep green with freshly foraged nettles, then tossed with wild cinnamon cap mushrooms and butter in a pan. The stuffed pastas (one late-winter hit: squid ink ravioli stuffed with salt cod) are superb. Alimentari’s extruded pasta dishes are as good as you’ll find almost anywhere in Italy. (The cacio e pepe is very much worth your attention here.)
Better still, Alimentari is licensed, so you can have a glass of wine or a beer with your pasta. And the kitchen makes very good meatballs, as well as an excellent Tuscan sugo, which is handy if, like me, you have a red sauce -fixated kid.
On the downside, the shop’s little dining room needs a bit of work. The lighting can be harsh and the tables could be more comfortable. It feels a little like an unloved lunchroom when the rest of what they do here is so good. (Consolation: the pair of two-tops in the window at the front of the restaurant are great when they’re available.)
Mr. Terpstra said they’re working on that dining room. The couple is hoping to extend the shop’s hours as well, from 7 pm right now until a more dinner-friendly 9.
But there is another way to think of all this—a way of thinking that’s far more common in Italy than here. A little inconvenience is a small price to pay when the prize is some of the best noodles of your life.
main image: Alimentari’s spaghetti with fresh tomatoes. Photo by Chris Nuttall-Smith
Pasta Fresca Baldassarre
Atmosphere: An artisanal pasta manufacturer on one of Toronto’s last great light industrial strips opens a 9-seat counter service restaurant at the front of the shop. Expect to wait in line.
Prices: In a word, cheap. Pastas are $12 and $13, contorni from $6 to $8.
Drinks: Italian water and sodas
What to eat: Go with a friend and order everything. Menu changes daily. Be flexible. Don’t skip the gelato bars for dessert. N.B. Cash only, no reservations, limited seating.
Alimentari Italian Grocery
Atmosphere: A top Italian grocer, complete with a bustling take-out and ready-to-eat counter. There’s a small and simple self-service dining room in the back, and a couple of (nicer, but still self-service) tables in the window up front.
Sound: Mellow. Unless there are kids who are not mellow.
Prices: Pastas from $14 to $22, contorni from $4.50 to $9.
Drinks: Italian sodas and waters, and a short, reasonable wine list.
What to eat: The pastas are superb, though the porchetta sandwich is also aces. The simple green salad is also good.