Walking into Centro, you are greeted by a vision of beauty: a wall of wine. Not just any wall and not just any wine. It’s a collection, carefully selected to create a wine menu that includes familiar favourites, bottles worthy of a major splurge, and affordable gems that will leave you wanting more.
That’s why when Tina and I were invited to visit the cellar, we jumped at it. And who would know more about the intricacies of those gems than owner Armando Mano. He started in 1990 busing tables. One year later he was promoted Wine Bar manager, and within a few years was managing the entire restaurant.
I have often mentioned in these pages that true wine people are a generous sort. The only thing better than discovering a new wine, is sharing it with people who will appreciate it. Armando is one of those people.
As soon as he heard we were women of wine, he insisted we try one of his favourites – Moschioni 2006 from Friuli region of north-eastern Italy. Oh my. This wine is mysterious, and doesn’t give everything away at once. It reveals slowly. The wine made me think of a Venetian Ball: elegant, opulent, velvety with the clear suggestion that the best is yet to come. And we just got started.
Armando and über chef Symon Abad took us on a journey of perfect pairings. From the initial palate-cleansing glass of Prosecco, (which is so right on so many levels), to the 2011 Babich Sauvignon Blanc which accompanied the most delicate buffalo mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes.
Symon followed with a pan-seared scallop on a bed of squid ink pasta which came with a crisp lively white Adriatico from the cellar of Lidia Bastianich, chef, author and host of Lidia’s Italy in America.
I was not going to let go of my Moschioni which, in my view, would pair perfectly with anything – but in this case – my rabbit roulade stuffed with spinach and mushroom with polenta puree and peas– which may well have been the best combination I have ever tasted.
It almost upstaged the lobster ravioli which paired spectacularly with a Chardonnay from Pearl Morrisette Winery on Twenty Mile Bench. Did I mention the shaved truffles? Beyond delicious.
Armando has a story for every wine. A visit to the Bastianich winery in north-eastern Italy where he bumps into Lidia herself, touring the Antinori estates throughout Tuscany where the family has been making wine for 27 generations, and entertaining the greatest wine makers of the world in his restaurant.
He believes there are four elements to a perfect dining experience, it is all about the food, the wine, the service and most important, the company. Though he will pass on the fusion movement, thank you. “Fusion causes confusion. I want to know what wine to order with my food,” he says.
His favourite wine book: Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly
His signature dish: Brown Butter Crab Risotto, so long as someone cleans up while he cooks.
His favourite wine: Mouton Rothschild (it is breaking my heart that it is not Italian)
This is a man who knows about getting it right, and he makes sure the people who work for him share the same philosophy.
Armando is proud of how Toronto has become a city known for its food. With more than eight thousand restaurants in the GTA, Armando marvels at how quickly the industry developed here. “I travel a lot and when I come home, I feel this massive sense of pride at how far we have come.”
2012 marks Centro’s 25th year, a remarkable achievement when restaurants come and go faster than the sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. And the impact of that success extends far beyond its own kitchens and into some of the other best restaurants in Toronto. The list of Centro’s alumni is enough to make gastronomers sigh and the casting agents of Top Chef weep. Chefs Like Marc Thuet (Thuet Fine Foods), David Lee (Nota Bene),Frank Parhizgar (Frank’s Kitchen), and Michael Bonacini (Oliver and Bonacini). Now Symon Abad (shown above) is king of the kitchen.
To honor its inauguration into the quarter century club, Centro’s alumni are participating in a series of evenings creating a special menu for the anniversary.
It will mean a treat for regulars, more stories to tell for Armando and a perfect launch point for the next 25 years that will keep people coming back, again and again.