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Would anyone really pay $24 for a plate of spaghetti with tomato and basil? At Scarpetta, people apparently do and in fact say they’d happily (pay and) eat this simple dish again. Scarpetta, that restaurant with a New York pedigree and of Scott Conant’s fame, opened in Toronto a couple of years back. The reviews were mixed, some even harsh, but that plate of spaghetti with tomato and basil was always singled out as excellent – and, as one food critic said, “irreproachable”. It was for this reason that I always had my eye on Scarpetta: just how good can pasta with nothing else but tomato sauce and basil get? But in Toronto, where the food scene is quickly evolving and new restaurants are opening practically every month, plans for such a splurge can easily get sidetracked by news about “electric” $3.75 tacos, nonna-style chicken liver agnolottis being served in Parkdale, and grilled pulpos that leave Toronto folks awestruck.

That’s why when my neighbour, Andrew Starling, announced that he was hosting a pop-up dinner at his place, I quickly responded with a “Please count me in!” Of course, not before I checked his menu and made sure a pasta dish was part of his 5-course dinner. Why? Because Andrew Starling just happens to be Scarpetta’s pasta chef!

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 1.44.00 AMThe pasta he prepared wasn’t spaghetti with tomato and basil as I had hoped, but a ricotta+parmiggiano-reggiano ‘agnolotti dal plin’. Was I disappointed? Not at all. On hindsight, Scarpetta’s spaghetti with tomato and basil – excellent as it is – is, after all, just another “template” dish. I was more interested in Andrew’s take on pasta in general and even more on how he’d roll out a 5-course dinner that didn’t rely on pasta alone. 

I knew the dinner would be good the moment we entered his house. The wall along the stairs to the basement was stacked high with jars of preserves – berries and fruits picked during his bike rides. The kitchen, partially seen from the dining area, had a calm and readiness one usually didn’t expect from a dinner staged at home. The courses featured local, sustainable ingredients, some Andrew himself foraged in Don Valley, like the crabapples in the appetizer and the dessert. The home-made 5-spice ketchup was delightful and I thought, yeah, Heinz could pack up and go for all I care! The man knew and was passionate about food, and I was rather embarrassed that up to this moment I had only thought of Andrew as a pasta chef.

Overall, the menu was well thought out, the courses building from one to the next with precise cadence and good progression. More importantly, Andrew and his wife Francine created an ambience that was convivial – a surprise for me as my first impression of Andrew was that he was one very formal guy. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and I’m sure the other guests had a great time too.

Another thumbs-up for Toronto’s food scene, and what luck it’s just a couple of doors away from me.

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With Chef Starling at the AdoboAid-Toronto

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