Good food deserves a proper introduction and there’s no one on the food planet more charming, hilarious or perfect for the job than Massimo Bruno , a stocky Italian from Puglia whose cooking and talking both come from the heart.
“Hey, ho, hey!” he calls out to get our book-club-that’s-really-a-food-club’s attention.
It’s Saturday night and our private party lines the two long tables of his downtown Toronto Italian supper club. The room is abuzz, voices layered upon voices, the early evening light throwing a golden hue on the table and its sparkling array of wine glasses filled with Ripasso, Prosecco and Amarone.
“Hey!” he shouts out again and we shut up. He’s got the food – we don’t – and hunger dictates instant obedience. All eyes fall on the creator of our meal who speaks as much from his heart as with his pumping, frenetic arms.
Behind him is a counter so heavy with plated food it’s impossible to imagine an indefatigable bone in this chef’s body. We’ll feast on six different antipasti representing Puglia, Sicily, Veneto and Puglia. Two primi will escort us into Tuscany then Calabria, warming us up for a rich beefy secondi following by a dolce doused in chocolate. The operative word is copious and we’ve been warned to treat this eating event more like a marathon than a sprint.
But first, the stage goes to Massimo who starts speaking of Sicily, proclaiming it the Florida of Italy. He’s referring to the citrus, specifically the blood oranges he’s sliced into transparent rounds, seasoned gently with salt, blended with sheer strips of red onion and bathed in olive oil.
There’s lots of olive oil everywhere. It’s a close ally of Massimo’s and attains a critical mass in his Sicilian focaccia with its rich, golden, crisp crust, studded with sausage chunks and striated with caramelized onions.
Thinly veiled deference colours his every description of Sicily. It’s obvious his heart thumps loudest for Puglia. There, on the boot of the Italian heel, Massimo cooked alongside his Mamma, Nonna and aunts memorizing the flavours of a rustic cuisine that defines his approach. Indeed, he wears his culinary philosophy scrawled across his barreled chest. Dal niente si fa tutto says his T-shirt, or from nothing you can make everything.
Like egg balls.
Massimo combines bread soaked in milk (it’s Wonderbread, I asked) Romano cheese, eggs, bread crumbs, parsley and just enough baking soda to make them rise and plump in the frying pan.Then he slow-braises those egg balls in a tomato sauce that is as smooth as it is calibrated.
“When you fry something, then put it in tomato sauce it changes the sauce, it makes it better,” he says.
But I don’t buy that for a minute. Massimo’s tomato sauce, the bedrock of his cooking, starts off as good as you’ll ever taste: sweet, salty, pleasantly acidic with a deep, resounding tomato flavour.
He also has his way with pasta. Tonight he serves us two. One is a fusilli from Calabria, flecked with sausage and wrapped up in an earthy porcini ragout. The other is gnudi or naked ravioli.
I watch Massimo and his assistant Giovanna Marcantonio carefully dollop creamy spoonfuls of this ricotta and spinach mixture on a huge baking sheet then paint them with melted butter and sage. I also watch the diners around me roll back their eyes in ecstasy when they taste the results.
But it’s the Brassato al Barola that unravels us.
Massimo is still introducing the food, describing the ninth dish, when Julia calls out in desperation: “We’re getting hungry!” to which Massimo replies “I make you suffer seven minutes more” and the famished crowd gets giddy, repeating “chicks” each time he says cheeks.
How this chef pronounces veal cheeks becomes moot the second we taste them. Braising them in red wine on low heat for hours on end, he’s broken these bovine parts into a buttery mass that is so rich, sinful and divine I have to agree when Massimo disses the salad that follows it.
“No Italian considers all these leaves food!” he scoffs. “This is just for the refresh!”
It’s arugula – dressed smartly in lemon juice, olive oil and salt – and it cleanses the palate and readies us for the final act, a warm, dark tart oozing with decadence from Piemonte.
I close my eyes and hear a soft, sugary sigh billow through the room as we’re wrapped in a chocolate high, delivered to the finish line of an unbeatable marathon.