by Michelle Jobin with Photos by Jason Nip

Toronto could use a little warming- up. That’s one often-uttered complaint about our collective approach to the dining and social scene in this city. We need to learn to relax, slow down, and enjoy ourselves, our food and interacting with each other a little more. And while I don’t necessarily agree that we are all so uptight (the recent success of communal-table restos like Pizzeria Libretto and Guu would suggest otherwise), we can be perhaps a bit reserved and cautious. We still have a long way to go to catch up with the conviviality of Montreal, in an odd way New York, or countless European cities.

Enter Enoteca Sociale. The newest venture by Chef Rocco Agostino, Max Rimaldi, and Daniel Clarke of Pizzeria Libretto lies just around the corner and down the street from the hipster swagger of the Ossington strip. You won’t find Libretto’s superlative Neapolitan pizzas here – but you will find Chef Agostino’s masterful take on Roman trattoria fare. The atmosphere is less boisterous than a typical night at Libretto, but just as welcoming – with a distinctly cozy neighbourhood feel. Service strikes just the right balance – attentive, but not cloying, with helpful suggestions about food and wine pairings.

With a name like Enoteca Sociale, I expect that the wine offerings will share the spotlight with the menu. No worries there. Sommelier Lesa LaPointe has assembled an impressive wine list, including the “80 Wines Under $80” selection, featuring some lesser known- Italian gems. And the showpiece of this well-stocked wine bar is the Enomatic. With the ability to keep wines fresh for weeks after opening, it’s the hallmark of a resto that takes creating an exceptional wine experience for its guests very seriously. This gives Enoteca the freedom of offering a wide range of wines – even those that are a little more rare or expensive – by the glass. (For the record, my choices for the evening – guided by my expert server – are spot on when it comes to pairing with my meal.)

Octopus with Fava Beans & New Potatoes

I get a sense that the menu, traditional though it is, really marks Chef Rocco’s opportunity to play with cuisine and flavours that are obviously close to his heart. And one after another, the dishes all do a number on mine. My antipasto – the grilled octopus with fava beans and new potato ($12) is so damn good that I think I experience a few palpitations. The dish is beautifully simple and well seasoned: each ingredient stands on it own while setting-off the others. Duck liver ravioli with sage brown butter ($12) is a departure into seriously rich and indulgent territory for my taste buds. And when it comes to flavour – the coda alla vaccinara (braised oxtail) on velvety polenta ($13) is hits the mark and then some. These are exactly the kind of dishes I was hoping for from Enoteca: the right blend of traditional recipes and local, seasonal ingredients.

Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter

Dolci such as ricotta cheesecake with seasonal fruit ($8) will satisfy those with a sophisticated sweet tooth. But before dessert you might want to consider Enoteca’s devotion to another great Italian culinary labour of love: cheese. Local and Italian cheeses are featured. But a whole new level of cheeseophilia exists here: Enoteca boasts a formaggi cave – meaning the selection can be aged in-house for real attention to detail and deliciousness.

Braised Oxtail & Polenta

It’s that very meticulous attention to detail and quality on behalf of owners, chefs, sommelier, and service staff that makes Enoteca Sociale a place where it’s guests can truly unwind. It feels like a place to linger, converse and indulge. From start to finish, the meal and the atmosphere were all about warmth. Which seems fitting when the culinary inspiration is the best of Nonna’s kitchen. Even the most type-A among us (umm, guilty!) will gladly surrender and slow down to enjoy the Enoteca Sociale experience.

Sometimes, Toronto, you don’t know what you need until it’s right in front of you.

Enoteca Sociale is located at 1288 Dundas St. West, 416.534.1200, Monday – Sunday from 12 am to midnight.

Michelle Jobin is the host and producer of Toronto Dining and a Weather Specialist for Global News. She is especially fond of duck confit, dark chocolate ganache, and thunderstorms.