With a final email confirming the insurance last Friday afternoon, Matt Basile has officially taken over the recently vacated restaurant space at 638 Queen St. W. (at Bathurst), where long-time pierogi palace Prague European Kitchen closed recently, just months after a reboot.
Basile, better known as the man behind Fidel Gastro’s sandwich pop-up and food-truck company, is taking the next step by becoming a first-time restaurateur. But, instead of opening a sandwich shop, come springtime he’ll be overseeing a full service, 60-seat (or so) restaurant named Lisa Marie—continuing with the Presley theme he started with his food truck, named Priscilla—serving Venetian street delicacies known as cicchetti and, of course, the handheld eats Basile is best known for.
“I didn’t want to open a sandwich place called Fidel Gastro’s,” says Basile inside his new restaurant while a crew cleans up the massive kitchen in the back. “I didn’t want to just repeat myself.”
More importantly, he says, the restaurant serves as a central hub for all his truck and catering jobs. “Back in November, I was getting frustrated with how my business was operating,” he explains. “I was renting a commissary kitchen in Richmond Hill to do my cooking. It was cheap rent so it made sense at the time, but it wasn’t my space and I felt like I had to ask permission to do my own business. Also, I was parking my truck in the Junction, my bakery was in Kensington, and my butcher was up at Yonge and Eglinton. If I was doing a lunch service downtown, I had to get up at 5 a.m. to get to all these places. I was going to burn out and had to say ‘no’ to more events than ‘yes.’”
So, at the suggestion of the producers from his upcoming reality show, Rebel Without A Kitchen (premiering on the Travel and Escape channel in April), Basile started to look at spaces for his own kitchen. A friend of his tipped him off that the new owner of Prague was looking to sell.
It’s a giant space with at least 2,000 square feet in the front. Toward the back, the large kitchen just needed some cleaning and is already stocked with its own smoker, deep fryer, grill, flat top, meat grinder, and a large-scale pressure kettle for Basile to do his own canning. In fact, after the clean-up, Basile will be immediately using the kitchen for catering gigs he already booked. Also, the liquor licence is already in place and there’s space in the back for him to park his food truck. All he needs to do now is renovate the dining room by adding more seats, replacing the front window with a sliding garage door, darken the floors, redo the walls, update the bar, and hire staff.
As for the food, Basile has hired chef Kris Topping, formerly of Fabbrica, to help create the menu of small plates. Cicchetti, he says, is handheld food atop a vessel like a piece of bread, an oyster shell, or a stick, and it’s usually either braised, cured, or fried. Think fried hamburgers, fried oysters with squid, or figs marinated in balsamic and then stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella and charred.
“You don’t see cicchetti in Toronto, and I want to bring that to the lexicon of Toronto’s culinary culture,” Basile says. “It allows me to stay in my street-food style without opening a sandwich shop. We’ll probably have [sandwiches] for lunch but, at dinner, cicchetti will be the concept.”
In the back of the dining room will be a take-out counter and market space where prepared sandwiches, sauces, soups, as well as house-made burger patties, cured meats, sausages, and cuts of meats will be sold. Basile’s also in talks with the Toronto Underground Market organizers to make Tuesdays TUM nights where vendors, much like Basile when he started out as a pop-up, will take over the kitchens and serve their menus at the restaurant.
“I’m very lucky and I know a lot of people don’t have the same opportunities as me so, if I don’t make the most of it, then what’s it all for?” he says. “It meant a lot to give back to that community, because I knew what it was like to be in that world and having to always look for a space.”—Karon Liu