A longtime fixture on the Toronto food scene, Basilio Pesce learned his chops from Mark McEwan and served as executive chef at Biff before opening the popular Italian eatery, Porzia. Now, the Chef of newly-opened La Banane talks about his lifelong love of Italian food. (And keep reading for his exclusive recipe for Burrata and ’nduja toast!)
Where is your family from in Italy?
Both my parents are from Bari, in Puglia, although they actually met here in Toronto!
How did this affect your approach to food?
It really gave me an appreciation for traditional Italian food. Growing up my grandmother wouldn’t buy vegetables in the summertime because she had a garden. It wasn’t big but it was enough to feed the eight of us in the family. It gave me a real appreciation for seasonality.
There’s a kind of maturity to Italian food—if you’re going to put a simple tomato on a plate with a little olive oil and salt, it better be a good tomato, and fantastic Italian extra virgin olive oil. And if you don’t have good tomatoes because they’re not in season, then you serve something else.
When you visited Italy as an adult, did that change your perspective on Italian food?
For sure. Growing up second generation Italian isn’t the same as living in Italy. I’ve traveled up and down the country and it really opened my eyes to the food and the culture.
I remember this little place in Chianti, having what you’d envision as the perfect Italian meal. And it was so simple. Pasta and truffles, which were in season at the time, and some porcini mushrooms. Or the seafood in Naples and Sardinia—it was outstanding.
Going to Bari and tasting all the dishes my mom made when I was growing up, but having them in Bari, done in the traditional way, that was very humbling. I also think about the burrata and stracciatella di bufala we had at my aunt’s place—it was still hot, they had made it just an hour before! It was a small piece of heaven that can’t be beat.
You talk about using the freshest possible ingredients—how do you ensure this when shopping for imported products?
One thing I’ve learned working in restaurants is that you get what you pay for. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy the most expensive thing, but a litre of Italian extra virgin olive oil shouldn’t cost only $6.
It comes down to buying from people who will go the extra mile to get the freshest, best quality products. The burrata we use is from Italy, it’s fresh, never frozen, and we get it a day or two after it was actually made—which is pretty impressive. That’s something you couldn’t get 10 years ago.
Suppliers should know their products and be able to explain the differences, say, between an olive oil from Tuscany, which tends to be strong and grassy, versus an olive oil from Sicily that’s a lot more mellow and fruity.
’Nduja and Burrata Toast
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 2 3.5 oz (100g) authentic Italian burrata
- 1 7 oz (200g) ’Nduja from Calabria
- 1 loaf Rustic country bread (preferably made with spelt flour)
- Authentic Italian extra virgin olive oil, to taste
- Sea salt, to taste
- 2 garlic cloves (peeled)
- Fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup (5g) fresh mint leaves
- 1/4 cups (5g) fresh basil leaves
- Temper burrata and ’nduja at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Slice bread and toast to desired colour (preferably dark but not burnt). Then rub the bread with garlic cloves and season with Italian extra virgin olive oil and sea salt.
- Cut burrata in half and place on top of the toasted bread. Generously season burrata with Italian extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and a few cracks of black pepper.
- Break ’nduja into small, bite-sized pieces and place on top of burrata. Garnish with mint and basil leaves.