Imaginative Italian wows the palate

• Toronto Star - Food - Dining Out • Wed, March 16, 2005 •
Reviewer: Judy Gerstel

Star Rating: 3.5 (out of 4) - Excellent

Although the building anchors a strip mall and the facade resembles a chain restaurant, inside all is handsome and appealing. An elegant etched glass dou­ble door is the portal from a parking lot that also serves Casa Nuovo Kickboxing and Serenity Spa and Laser.

As you enter, behind swinging doors with big windows is the gleaming kitchen. If it’s not busy, Victor, the courtly server from Argentina, might invite you on a tour to show how everything is freshly prepared to order.

A central bar anchors two dining rooms, light-filled at noon, flickering with flames at night. On Saturdays, a vocalist croons Italian songs at the keyboard. Settle into champagne, saffron and camel surroundings and savour a moment of serenity before submitting to the agony of not being able to eat everything on the menu, which is the same at lunch and dinner. (Your suffering is assuaged by do-it-yourself bruschetta arriving immediately: delicious fresh bread and a dish of freshly chopped tomatoes, parsley, onions and olive oil).

Owner/chef Tony Barbiere, who has operated Mississauga's Il Molinaro for 24 years, here offers many dishes from the grill, recognizing, he says, the taste of European-influenced Kleinburg.

Steak is usually a special, sometimes with gorgonzola sauce ($32), and fresh whole fish is almost always available. One evening, it was a deceptively simply prepared sea bass ($30), with sweet, opaque, flaky flesh into which flavours and moisture patted over the skin had seeped: olive oil, lemon, garlic, white wine and brandy. Five minutes grilled on each side, confided Barbiere, and then five minutes baking in the oven. Served with a side plate of vegetables — carrots, asparagus, each cooked to its own perfection — the meal is manna for health-conscious diners.

Anyone else must consider the green ravioli ($16) stuffed with spinach and ricotta, smothered in a white wine and mushroom cream sauce that teases with cognac. Or Rigatoni Villaggio ($16), stunningly rich and savoury with patches of prosciutto, flecks of green onion and portobello mushroom all lavished with cream sauce touched by tomato and emboldened with brandy. These pastas are sensationally sensuous; they seduce you into reaching for more bread to wipe up every lingering dribble of sauce. Fortunately, all dozen pastas are available as appetizers.

Don't, however, overlook the Antipasto Mediterraneo ($9) as a starter. Portobello mushrooms, black olives, artichokes and whole roasted garlic cloves are grilled in extra virgin olive oil, tossed with a confetti of jalapeno peppers and parsley and served warm. What I'll return for is the Vitello Villaggio ($19), a white veal scaloppini in one of Barbiere's beguiling wine and cream sauces, here tossed with onions as well as mushrooms and served with tiny potatoes, carrots and rapini.

The chef isn't secretive about his key ingredient: "Dry white wine in almost all the dishes."

Ordering dessert after this chef's rich largesse is almost redundant, but one time I sample a meltingly creamy, almost crustless cheesecake ($7), its sweetness tempered by sour cream. Another time, it’s a classic tiramisu ($7) with layers: mascarpone, zabaglione with marsala, whipping cream and espresso laced with brandy, rum, kahlua and grand marnier. Sigh.

One small quibble is that only the two house wines (the red is from Puglia) are available by the glass. But bottles are reasonably priced.

Villaggio doesn't try to wow you, let alone intimidate you. There's no architectural presentation, nothing witty or whimsical or trendy. It’s simply delicious, fresh food imaginatively prepared and served with care and respect in an attractive, welcoming space with charming ambience. If you live near Kleinburg, count yourself lucky. If not, believe that it’s worth the trip.