Many restaurants around the city try to imbibe that familial feeling into their way of operating. Not many succeed in the way that Y Not Italian does.
Located on the corner of Harbord and Manning, this quaint spot exists in a setting that is perfect for the kind of vibe it offers. There are parks and schools around the vicinity that foster a lot of footfall through the neighbourhood and generate this easy-going vibe. And taking full advantage of that very feeling is Y Not Italian.
Named after the owner, Peter Catarino's father Anthony (Tony backwards, for the ones that didn't follow), the family orientation is clear from the very beginning. The restaurant houses a rustic facade with exposed bricks outside that complement the quaint plant-lined patio. Even the font on the board has a fun and inviting allure, which only accentuates the not-too-serious and family-oriented vibe that the restaurant aims to achieve.
Continuing inside, the interiors are cozy, warm and comfortable. It has a very homey atmosphere, as if you've just entered someone's living/dining room — a perfect backdrop for the cuisine the restaurant serves, as Italian food and people are all about the family.
One of the things that you immediately notice in this space is the use of wood. From the flooring and furniture to even the wall ornaments, a lot of wood has been used in the space. Add to that the golden-yellow lights and you have yourself a very warm and snug spot to dine in.
The seating structure of the restaurant almost alludes to a sort of communal situation. Even though they're all separate, the proximity to one another might fester some sparkling conversation with the people sitting next to you.
Other odds and ends around the interior round off the place. The ornate mirror across the bar, wine boxes acting as shelving and old-school art pieces all work together to create this rather rustic vibe inside the space.
The star of the show, however, is the elevated open kitchen at one end, where the man who built it all, Catarino, whips up the meals and looks after his patrons in a Gatsby-esque manner.
Speaking of him, if you've been a regular in the Toronto food scene, you should have no hassle recognizing his pedigree. Starting as a busboy, Catarino worked his way up until he co-owned the posh Spuntini Restaurant and Bar in the Yorkville area. All was going as per plan until the rather memorable fire of 2014 burnt down both his restaurant and the acclaimed Sotto Sotto in one fell blaze.
Catarino spent a year looking for another location before finding one that allowed him to continue his tryst with Avenue Road. And thus, EVOO was born, where he was the sole owner. Things seemed to be going well again until you know what disrupted the entire industry in 2020.
The pandemic ended up being quite the pivotal moment in Catarino's professional life. While his forte had been operating at the front of the house, what allowed him to spend more time in the kitchen was the lockdown. Since they could only do takeout and not host in-house patrons, he got into the kitchen — and stayed there.
"It was kind of an unimaginable period. We had no idea what was going to happen," Catarino said. "We couldn't control it. It was out of our control. We were being controlled. And I said, 'You know, I have a little bit of a culinary background, so I'm gonna stay on longer.' That's what I've done."
After trying everything at EVOO, even down to notoriously opening up a European back-alley-style driveway patio amongst dumpsters and garbage bins to try and keep the restaurant operational during COVID, the time finally came for Catarino to make a decision when his lease was up for renewal. He eventually ended up selling EVOO in August 2020.
The current location where Y Not Italian resides was already in his possession with the intention of using it for catering purposes while keeping EVOO as his fully-functioning restaurant. One thing eventually led to another and he turned the space on Harbord into a bistro.
Catarino loves the elevated open kitchen that this space possesses, as it allows him to run the kitchen while also interacting with his clientele, keeping that tight-knit operation running smoothly. Given the staff shortages that have resulted due to multiple lockdowns, the open kitchen also allows him to operate without a large staff.
"The visibility is great. And I can keep an eye on the tables with just a couple of steps," he said. "I know exactly what the stage is at every table without even having to come onto the floor. So to manage, it's a lot easier."
Catarino was not the only one who moved from Yorkville to his current neighbourhood, but many of his clients also followed him to Harbord, not wanting to let go of the delicious meals he had come to be known for.
Y Not Italian sees a healthy mix of local neighbourhood patrons as well as his previous client base. Interestingly, Catarino said that the area around the restaurant used to be a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in the '50s and '60s, so a lot of his clients of that background grew up in those parts around the restaurant.
"They come down here and they think this is nostalgic because this is where they grew up as kids, so they get a kick out of it," he said. "And it just brings back memories. It's just the way things have unfolded. And they see the changes in the road. So it's been pretty interesting from that perspective."
Catarino said he wanted to create a European dining experience — something you would find in the back alley of a major city like Rome, Madrid or Barcelona. Being from a European background, he wanted to give that feeling you get when you come across such restaurants in Europe where the locals dine, far from the touristy areas. He wanted that kind of unpretentious, hole-in-the-wall kind of feel that exudes warmth to any passerby.
This keeps in touch with the sort of feeling you get when you enter his restaurant — as if you've walked into someone's home. All the wood touches throughout the decor have been installed to enhance the warm ambience and nudge toward the existence of wine in the dining experience. EVOO had a sizable wine list, and while the offerings are more limited at Y Not Italian, Catarino still wanted to stick with that theme.
"I've always wanted to keep that," he said. "Food and wine are a very integrated part of European meals or European society. So I want to keep that in here as well."
Speaking of the food, Catarino described it as a European mix. Having a Portuguese background, you see those influences in the dishes served along with a strong Italian bent. As both countries are surrounded by water, seafood is abundant on the menu. In addition to that, he always has fresh fish brought in daily to serve, continuing the theme he has come to be known for from his previous restaurants.
The menu at Y Not Italian features a few staples that have carried forward from EVOO, along with a few new introductions. Keeping in mind the clients he had at his previous restaurant(s), Catarino said he wanted to curate the same dining experience as before and didn't want to create a whole new menu from scratch.
Seasonality is at the core of any menu discussions that Catarino has while thinking of dishes on the menu. As is the case specifically with Italian cuisine, the ingredients are at the front and centre of any dish, so they need to be seasonal and as fresh as possible. Because of that, some dishes aren't available year-round, and some even see ingredients being swapped in and out according to the season.
Nothing speaks seasonality like a fresh salad and nothing gets more classic than a well-made Caesar salad. At Y Not Italian, the salad is served with romaine lettuce, garlic and herb crostini, anchovies, fresh Parmesan, a creamy dressing with lemon on the side and crispy soppressata that enhances the texture.
The salad is luscious on the tastebuds. It's herby and brine-y due to the anchovies in both the dressing and on top, giving it quite the strong seafood kick. The lemon accentuates the freshness, pairing well with the earthiness and savouriness of the Parmesan that mellows out the tartness.
As we all know, a good salad provides a myriad of textures, and this one is no different. The crunchy fresh romaine paired with the crispy soppressata and garlic crostini gives the texture a great balance, complementing the silkiness of the dressing.
Next on the list, we have a Beet and Arugula Salad. A dish perfect for the winter, the beetroot provides a warm earthiness to the palate that is freshened up with the peppery arugula. Also present is a fresh element in the form of pear and grape tomatoes which liven the dish up before the olive oil and balsamic glaze round off the flavour profile. The crowning glory of this salad, however, is the fried goat cheese which brings a certain decadence to the dish and a burst of texture.
While the Fig Salad is not always on the menu, it's a specialty item that people call ahead for. The reason is that the Cypriot figs Catarino uses in his salad are hard to find, so he can't always assure of the dish's availability. It's served with honey, feta cheese, arugula, radicchio and balsamic vinegar.
The salad has everything going for it in terms of flavour and texture, with the Cypriot figs being the absolute star of the show. Take one bite and you'll understand why people call ahead for it. The fruit is sweet, along with the honey, which pairs amazingly with the salty feta and the peppery arugula. The radicchio brings a certain bite to the dish and the intensely flavoured balsamic rounds off the entire plate.
Honestly, though, we could eat an entire plate of feta, figs and balsamic. Everything else is purely a value add.
One of the most popular pasta dishes at the restaurant is the Linguini di Mare Francesca. As the name suggests, the linguini is served with a Pernod cream sauce and includes a lot of seafood in the form of black tiger shrimp, salt spring mussels and even Atlantic salmon. It's a true ode to the water bodies that provide us with so much beautiful produce.
As mentioned, Catarino has a reputation for serving fresh fish daily. One of the most sought-after dishes is the grilled Branzino or Spigola. The catch is served with roasted vegetables like zucchini, cauliflower, potatoes and peppers. It's garnished with micro greens and a drizzle of herby chive oil.
The Atlantic salmon is sesame crusted and is served on top of asparagus spears and red kale, amongst other vegetables, with a red and white cabbage slaw crowning the fish.
A staple of any Italian restaurant is the Vitello (veal) Milanese. At Y Not Italian, breaded veal scallopini is served with spaghetti in a tomato basil sauce and is accompanied by a bruschetta-like tomato and basil salad to freshen up the tastebuds.
The meal ends with a classic tiramisu served with fresh berries. It's light, creamy, soft, decadent, coffee-forward, spongy, not-too-sweet, lightly boozy and just the perfect spoonful to end your evening at Y Not Italian.
As mentioned, Y Not Italian also has a wine list, which, given the restaurant's size, offers a fair amount. Catarino wanted to put an approachable list together in terms of price and quality for the ones not looking to spend much. But he also has a cellar downstairs which houses higher quality and priced bottles for the patrons looking for something more exclusive with their meal.
While he does not have a sommelier in-house, he possesses enough wine knowledge to speak to his clients if they need certain suggestions for pairings. If they do not ask, he leaves them to his own devices since people these days are quite savvy, thanks to the internet. One scan and they can have all sorts of information at their fingertips, he said.
"People are more edgy, everybody's got an Android or an iPhone," Catarino said. "So it's a lot easier than it was before. Sometimes the client has more knowledge than you do, so unless they ask, you kind of back off and let them decide on what they'd like."
The restaurant also has a small cocktail program, although that is not the main focus. EVOO had a cocktail menu and Catarino carried a small menu forward to Y Not Italian as well, but the restaurant mostly dabbles in the classics, with the Martini being the one that's the most ordered.
With plenty of Italian restaurants on College Street near this joint, Catarino doesn't try to make himself or his business different for the sake of standing out. The following that he had garnered over the many years serving on Avenue Road followed him here, which is what he likes focusing on. At the end of the day, there are enough patrons for everyone to serve from around the city, he said.
"I just need to stay true to myself with what I was doing there [on Avenue Road] because I had a competition there as well," he said. "There were other Italian restaurants beside me. But we did our thing, they did theirs and there was a good business rivalry. And there's enough business for everybody."
After all that's said and done, at the end of the day, Catarino just wants everyone who walks through the door of his restaurant to have an enjoyable experience. The feedback has been quite positive so far, with many new entrants making same-time reservations for the following week and such.
"So that in itself is kind of self-explanatory to the way they receive the place," Catarino said. "So that gives me satisfaction because it tells me, 'You know what, they enjoyed being here,' if they call me again. And this will especially be the ones that are here for the first time and within a day or two, they're calling for a consecutive reservation. And that is gratifying."
In what might be news to many, Catarino has quite an extensive history with the neighbourhood and even the very building that houses Y Not Italian. As someone who grew up in the area in the '80s, he used to play video games and foosball at the spot while attending high school, so to say that he knows the space well would be quite the understatement.
After leaving the area in 1991, his life had a full-circle moment which saw him back in the same building, albeit with a very different perspective, cooking food in the same space he used to kill space monsters.
From the past to the future, Catarino said he is looking toward maintaining the status quo, given the fact that the industry is still living in limbo, not having fully recovered from the recent past. He's going to bide his time and if the right opportunity presents itself, he won't say no to expanding his reach to the city.
"I've already seen what's happened on the other side. So [we'll] just stay the course right now," he said. "And, you know, my doors never close, so if there's an opportunity that presents itself and it makes sense, I'll probably jump on it. But I have no quick quota to get out of here. I'm staying status quo for the time being."
While the future might be uncertain in more ways than one, one thing's for sure: Peter Catarino will still be found at the corner of Harbord and Manning, feeding people his delectable dishes that have his patrons follow him all over the city.