I am always seeking out new restaurant spots and I forget to revisit some of my favourites. I am embarrassed to say that it has been years since I have been back to Carisma, but you would never know it from the warm greeting we received from owners, Margi and Michael Pagliaro. It was like time never passed. They still brought us our favourite wine and served my husband his favourite pasta without having to order it. To anticipate your needs and requirements is the sign of excellent service.
First I will give you some background on this classic Italian restaurant.
The Pagliaro’s have a long history and have been in the business for well over 45 years. I remember them first from Barolo and then their move to Il Mulino on Eglinton. After many years there, they retired for a short time to all their patrons’ detriment. But luckily that didn’t last long. The pair opened a spot at 73 King Street East where Cyrano’s used to be. They still work their magic at this spot, and still have Chef Allan Hilano at the helm. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is not to have tapas style share plates, and minuscule portions, but instead old-school large portions along with warm service – quality ingredients in an inviting atmosphere. It is a breath of fresh air to have no attitude, accommodating service and consistently good food.
The room is dark, the walls and ceiling are painted black, the lights are dimmed. (Bring your phone or a small flashlight to read the menu.) The finishes and lighting really make for a relaxed, yet sophisticated experience.
Not much has changed on the menu from the Il Mulino days. Thankfully, that is a good thing because you know what you are going to get when you dine here. You start off with their wonderful warm crusty bread that is soaked in rosemary and olive oil. They still serve standards like insalata funghi, grilled calamari, and some fine Bufala mozzarella. There are still the requisite 9-10 pasta choices, with many being made from homemade noodles. There is the gnocchi with four cheeses, the spaghetti with black tiger shrimps in a brandy tomato sauce, and scialetielli with lobster and cherry tomatoes, and of course who can forget their wonderful pappardelle with wild boar. They can also make gluten-free options for you. For mains they are still preparing things like tender Osso Buco with saffron risotto, veal chops, grilled beef tenderloin, and veal scaloppine. A sign of a great kitchen is when they make something equally as well that is not even on the menu. They know my husband likes a bolognese sauce. They happen to make one of the best in the city, and they brought it to the table for him because they remembered that he used to request it years ago. It is still fabulous. When I walked in the restaurant Micheal told me they have truffles, remembering that I adore them, and he had the kitchen prepare them over a homemade pasta tossed simply with butter. A meal of my dreams. The herb crusted lamb chops are still big and juicy, served over a mashed potato with daily vegetables. Yes, here is a restaurant that still actually serves vegetables along with the main course, instead of a la carte in other restaurants. We were celebrating my mother’s birthday and they brought out a beautiful platter of desserts. I especially drooled over the warm, rich chocolate tart.
It is nice to know for a change that there are no surprises or trail blazing experiences, but instead you know you will be rewarded with perennial favourites that showcase the talent in the kitchen. They serve robust, traditional, risk-free food. Food that still has dynamic flavour and aromas. Carisma is a grown-up restaurant – the staff is intuitive and it’s without a doubt a mainstay for Toronto. I know what I am going to get, and that is a good thing. Please note that they are now open on Sundays!!