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Chef Mike Sala is looking to diversify Italian offerings in the city by cooking regional-specific and traditional Abruzzese food from his new weekend pop-up restaurant, La Pecora.
The new restaurant is located at 1100 Queen Street West, inside Twist Art Gallery and is run by chef Mike Sala, alongside his wife Jennifer Di Paolo Sala and business partner Julian Policarpio.
Co-founders of La Pecora, Julian Policarpio, Mike Sala and Jennifer Di Paolo Sala.
What initially operated as a pasta pop-up, delivering fresh hand-made pasta, past kits, sauce, porchetta, pizza and sides to the people of Toronto, has evolved into a brick-and-mortar location, with hopes of serving new customers as soon as restrictions lift.
The ravioli abruzzesi kit comes with 10 ricotta stuffed ravioli, 250 mL of tomato sauce, confit tomatoes, fried guanciale and fried basil.
With 13 years of industry experience under his belt, chef Sala awaits in eager anticipation to finally open his restaurant for dine-in service. The chef has worked nearly every position in the back of house, giving him an in-depth knowledge of how a restaurant should function.
Chef Sala's career started by working at his parent's Italian restaurant in Markham and grew into several stints at various other restaurants around the city. At 29, the chef was offered a dream position of chef de partie in a restaurant in Abruzzo, Italy. Sala moved to Abruzzo with his wife Jennifer, with the intention of only living there for a year to gain some insight into the regional cuisine. The duo immediately fell in love with Italy and decided to bid farewell to Toronto in favour of residing in Abruzzo indefinitely.
When COVID hit Italy hard, back in the spring of 2020, Sala and Jennifer made the difficult decision to move back to Toronto. They may have left the beloved region of Abruzzo behind but the two decided they would set out to share the food and culture with the people of Toronto.
What started as a love affair for the region grew into a pasta pop-up turned storefront that relishes in all that Abruzzese food has to offer.
Their takeout menu changes frequently but expect offerings similar to their pasta kits, including a pappardelle con coda alla vaccinara kit made of oxtail ragu, a chitarra alla teramana kit with sugo and meatballs and a spaghetti con cime di rapa kit with crema di rapini and pepperoncini. They also offer Abruzzi-style pizzas, with flavours like pomodoro and potato and rosemary. What distinguishes this style of pizza is the crispy, focaccia-like crust that lends a great bite to the pies.
Another specialty for the shop is their porchetta. Ontario pork belly is slow-roasted for eight hours with herbs to produce incredibly flavourful and succulent meat, with the crisp crackling encasing the wrapped loin.
La Pecora delivers regional-specific cuisine made with high-quality ingredients in order to present simple yet undeniably delicious dishes (the ultimate goal for Italian fare, no matter the region).
We spoke with chef and owner Mike Sala to chat more about what Abruzzese food has to offer and what to expect from Toronto's newest destination for it, La Pecora.
Chef Mike Sala of La Pecora, pictured above.
What sets Abruzzese food and culture apart from other Italian offerings in the city? Would you say few other locales are highlighting this region in Toronto?
Most other Italian offerings in the city are focused on southern Italian or northern Italian cuisine. For central Italian, Roman dishes like cacio e pepe and carbonara have become very popular in Toronto. Abruzzese food and culture is unique as it's very centred around agriculture and natural preservation. Abruzzo is known as the "greenest region" in Europe, over half of the land in the region is protected as a national park or reserve. This respect for the land is visible in the food and there is a real dedication to using only high-quality and natural ingredients. That's the part of the culture we really wanted to focus on and incorporate into La Pecora as we make our dishes in a simple fashion but in a way that really highlights the quality of the ingredients.
There have definitely been some Abruzzese dishes highlighted in Toronto but I'm not aware of any restaurants that have really focused on the cuisine in its entirety.
Bucatini all'Amatriciana, one of chef Mike Sala's specialities.
What do you envision for your future brick-and-mortar location? Would you like to continue to offer fresh pasta and kits to take away once the option for dine-in customers is allowed again?
In terms of a location in the future, we are moving into one beginning of February. We will be offering our regular menu of fresh pasta, sauces, kits and more for delivery and pick up and a few dishes a day for takeout. Eventually, if I had my own restaurant, I might continue to sell pasta and pasta kits but my dream is really to focus on high-quality dine-in. Personally, I feel like with meal kits, if you're offering something specific and of high-quality, you are limited in what you can do. Whereas in a restaurant, I would be able to be a bit more creative day to day. Also, one of the things I miss the most (as I'm sure all chefs do) is actually being able to cook for people in the moment. That's what I really love to do.
How did the pandemic impact your business? Was this born out of COVID or were you always working towards opening up a storefront?
To be honest, La Pecora was never started with the intention of doing meal kits. I wouldn't say the pandemic affected my business in any negative way; it was more of an adjustment and figuring out how to make the business work with the rules of the pandemic. This is what led to the fresh pasta and pasta kits. The original idea was to do dinners at different locations in the city (which is still something we're planning to do once it's safe!) and just overall bring the experience of my food and our brand to people. La Pecora will not just be a pasta company, but with the restrictions in place, I found it the best route to take right now.
What is your ethos when it comes to making fresh pasta? If you could advise someone attempting to make pasta for the first time, what would you tell them?
My ethos with all Italian food is that less is more. When you focus on using good ingredients, the dish comes together with more clarity and quality. For example, when making fresh pasta, use free-run eggs and a high-quality flour.
For a first-time pasta maker, I would say start with the basic recipe: one cup flour, one whole egg and a pinch of salt per person, focus on finding high-quality ingredients and have patience and love. If it doesn't come out perfect the first time, that's okay; try again as it takes some practice. If you never get the hang of it, head on over to our website!
La Pecora is open for takeout from Thursday to Friday, 12 p.m.- 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.- 7 p.m. and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at 1100 Queen Street West or order through their online store for delivery in Toronto.