What’s on the menu at Contrada, Little Italy’s unconventional new Italian kitchen
Contact: 537 College St., contradarestaurant.com, @contrada.to
Neighbourhood: Little Italy
Previously: Dog and Tiger
Owners: Mike Vieira, Patrick Groves and Jessie Mak
Chef: Mike Vieira
Accessibility: One step up at the entrance
When friends Patrick Groves, Jessie Mak and Mike Vieira teamed up to open a restaurant together, they all agreed that they wanted to pay homage to Little Italy while reflecting the diversity of Toronto’s culinary scene.
“We wanted to make sure we stood out with something a little bit different,” says Vieira. Contrada’s menu is therefore rooted in Italian cooking techniques but laced with Latin American and French influences.
Related: What’s on the menu at Bar Prima, an old-school Italian restaurant on Queen West from the team behind La Palma
“We see it as a local haunt,” adds Vieira. “We want people who live in the neighbourhood to come back again and again.” To that end, Contrada preserved much of the cozy decor from the pub that previously occupied the space in order to maintain its welcoming watering-hole vibe. “We wanted something that was approachable–a high level of service, but not stuck up,” says Mak.
Contrada takes its name from an Italian word meaning “district” or “ward,” a symbol of the team’s desire for the restaurant to contribute to the local community. “We felt like this concept was something this neighbourhood could really benefit from–a place where anybody could walk in and enjoy themselves,” says Vieira.
Vieira describes Contrada’s menu as “Italian-inspired,” with Italian ingredients and methods serving as a common thread that ties together otherwise genre-defying dishes. “It’s certainly not authentic, and it doesn’t try to be,” says Vieira. “It’s whimsical, tongue-in-cheek Italian.”
Local ingredients are the other driving force behind the menu. Vieira works closely with the restaurant’s produce suppliers to shape dishes around fruits and vegetables that are fresh, seasonal and interesting. “You’re going to get something that you can’t really get anywhere else when you come and dine here,” says Vieira.
Groves curated a predominantly Italian wine list with a careful eye toward vineyards that employ sustainable wine-making practices. “If it’s not a classic, there has to be something enduring about it,” says Groves. There are staple grapes like Nebbiolo and Chianti along with more offbeat Italian options, like sparkling Franciacorta. “If you want to discover something new, this is a great place,” says Groves. “But, if you just feel like something comforting, I have that too.”
With guidance from Groves, bar manager Kevin Nitcheu developed a cocktail program that runs parallel with the menu’s loosely Italian ethos. There’s the signature Contrada Spritz, for example, a drink that mixes Cocchi Rosa and skin-contact wine with aquavit, sumac, pomegranate and a splash of prosecco.
With its inviting fireplace, classic wainscoting and comfy banquettes, the former Dog and Tiger space provided a solid starting point for the warmth Mak envisioned for Contrada. “We were trying to keep a lot of what was here already,” she says. “But we wanted to make it feel timeless, cozy and quaint, so we added a touch of femininity.”
“Jessie added vintage touches throughout, so it feels super homey,” says Vieira. “It feels like you’re having dinner at a relative’s house.”