The Big Ragu
Landsdowne, just south of St. Clair
Prompted by erly's post of last month we attended at The Big Ragu on a Thursday (gnocchi) night. We were quite pleased- when we expected to be disappointed but for erly's recommendation.
I had seen the place open - saw the sign for a new restaurant- but never had the urge to try it. Fond memories were not associated with the room. The predecessor -something Antica- served a caricature of assimilated Italian- low Canadian cooking. First time-last time. We used the Entertainment coupon and so felt obliged to suppress expressions of displeasure. The grand-predecessor, Venezia, was OK and least not low- Canadian but not worth the trip.
Then something called The Big Ragu replaced Antica. The name was not inviting and I thought the restaurant a teleological evolution on the location. I had visions of grotesquely large portions of crap alla Niagra Falls N.Y. Italian. A sea of sweet red mud submerging evrything on the plate. Mentally in Niagara Falls, it is but a short distance to Buffalo, where seemingly everywhere a rip tide of coarse oregano in the sauce sea makes the otherwise (at least) kiddie friendly dish unpalatable to even a child.
Big Ragu big surprise.
The room hadn't changed over the years. It is authentically accretionally crummy, as opposed to the artifice of 7 numbers and the other Gio's related places. There is however lots of light to see that everything is clean and to see what you are eating.
The decor goes with the cooking. By this I don't mean that the cooking is crumby. Big Ragu is not about a cool scene, it is about good food and enough of it, a friendly ambience and a relaxed good time. Eat, enjoy, don't pose; it is cheap enough to be a regular stop. A renovation would have added to the cost of the food and not improved it; the room would have had to be bigger to carry the overhead and with more seats someone other than the owner would have had to do a lot more of the cooking.
The idea behind a lot of the dishes is to use relatively inexpensive ingredients but to cook them very nicely and to serve large portions. Where ingredients are more expensive, there is also more than is necessary on the plate, but similarly, sooner put the money on the plate than in the renovations. The chef owner seems to be an easy going, happy, hospitable person and seems to want his restaurant to say: "welcome to my table at home".
My suggestion is to order every course but to share every course.
The only thing that we didn't like was the pasta and bean soup. To me it was just some overcooked pasta and beans in a bit of a muddy and salty sauce. We left most of it. It may have been authentically Italian but we are not. We couldn't see what there was to like. Surely there is some Italian soup (beans and greens(?) that is in character and shares the good culinary values of the rest of the cooking.
But two regulars at the next table each had the soup and did like. They scraped the bowl with their spoons. They were not Italian either.
The April prior posts referred to reviews in the Toronto Star and Globe & Mail, which I read before we went. I think that the Star didn't understand the place. As for Joanne Kates in the Globe, I want to address her comments about the desserts. She said that they were bland. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. She might have been right here!
I am told as follows. When Big Ragu opened, the wife made all the desserts, and they were Roman. (Whatever this means- orgiastic? If so, sexual vocabulary to describe dessert has gone too far even though the desserts still are big enough for sharing.) The place didn't have the customers for this sort of thing and so instead brought in the desserts. It now has developed a better customer base and the wife again makes almost all desserts. The one we had (twice) was delicious- interesting, elegant and refined even though substantial. It was the Neopolitan lemon ricotta arborio torte with pineuts etc. Neopolitan, but tangerine and not tomato sauce! It went well with the meal.
Joanne Kates may have had the desserts during the interregnum, and she may therefore have been right, but things are different now. Or what she wanted was a familar fat and sugar end- of- meal bomb(e) from LaRoccha or Dufflet.
The standard "free" ( "" because the place has to pay for it and get the money back) limoncello liquer was very pleasing and went nicely with the meal. I liked it better than the limoncello that I paid for at Tutti Matti, but then again I am not Italian and don't understand these things.
Big Ragu is a "Chowfind" but for the fact that Italian cooking is too conventional for me to so describe it.
The website is hard to find; I found it at the end of two pages of listings on Googling. I don't like its art work at all to the extent that it was off putting-it refreshed memories of Venezia- Antica. The chef-owners' taste is in his mouth. Good thing. In fact, how novel in Toronto.
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