I MAESTRI DELLA PASTA: IMPASTO

IMPASTO HAS BEEN IN MY TOP TEN FAVOURITE RESTAURANTS IN MONTREAL SINCE THE FIRST TIME I ATE THERE IN THE SPRING. THIS REVIEW INCLUDES TWO ADDITIONAL VISITS, OVER A TOTAL OF FOUR MONTHS. -JRS

You’ve got to hand it to the Italians: They know how to build an empire. Case in point, the impero del ristorante led by Michele Forgione and Stefano Faita. Their realm comprises three restaurants, with a fourth in the works: GEMA Pizzeria, nouveau casse-croûte Chez Tousignant (co-owned with Yann Turcotte) and fine-dining flagship, Impasto. Oh, and there’s a popular line of ready-made sauces, as well.

This review concerns the latter restaurant, which sits on rue Dante at St. Dominique, cater-corner to Montreal institution—and Faita family connection—Quincaillerie Dante, and across from GEMA. A stunning space, Impasto, clearly the product of careful design and considerable investment. The concept (by Atelier Zébulon Perron), is a contemporary take on classic Italian restaurant aesthetics, situated somewhere between ristorante and trattoria: elegant enough for fine dining, and yet approachable, thanks to details like the open kitchen, the lack of tablecloths, the t-shirts worn by waitstaff.

Speaking of, service is, simply stated,  professional, without pretension. Staff are attentive, accommodating, kind. You feel well taken care of—Forgione and Faita, it seems, understand and apply the “hospitality” aspect of the hospitality industry.

The food, like the design, represents a contemporary (not modernist) take on classic Italian cooking. Impasto explores and interprets the cuisines of the Old Country with the freedom of the new, combining concepts from regions all over Italy with local ingredients. Items on offer include, for example, familiar starters (focaccia, bagna cauda, crostone), a fish of the day, and mainstay “porchetta del nonno” (more on that later). For the indecisive, a fairly priced tasting menu of four courses—chef’s choice—is an option, $65.

The remainder of the menu—the heart of the menu, to my mind—consists of pasta courses, and, while I’ve tried enough of the non-pasta options to comfortably recommend that you order at will, I would suggest you place your focus here. Not because Impasto cannot do other things well, but because other restaurants cannot do pasta as well as they—basically, if you want better pasta, you’d better have an Italian grandparent or book a plane ticket.

When you think about it, it is a curious phenomenon that, despite the influence of Italians on North American culture, and despite our passion for Italian cuisine, good pasta—let alone great pasta—can be rare in restaurants, regardless of price range. By and large, quantity trumps quality: pasta is overcooked, over-portioned, over-sauced. Thankfully, certain chefs and restaurateurs are doing for pasta what they’ve done for pizza, and you can now experience pasta of excellent quality in restaurants like Nora Gray or Elena, for example (see my review of the latter here).

But Impasto, based on my experience, is the best, a masterclass in pasta-making. In three visits over four months, I tasted some dozen or more different pastas and they were, almost without exception, excellent. What follows are a few examples.

The ricotta gnocchi (technically a dumpling, I’m aware) achieve such heights of deliciousness that you can’t write about them without wandering into cliche, so here goes. They’re like savoury “pillows” of flour and cheese, bearing a texture as “airy” (ethereal, really) as “little clouds”. Served in a simple tomato sauce, this dish exemplifies both the charm and the challenge of Italian cooking: making something much greater than the sum of its parts—but with very few parts. Adept technique here, and a must-order. $19.

Equally outstanding were the anolini with venison ragu. The sauce in particular stood out: Impasto braised pieces of deer from, I’m assuming, a hard-working cut (e.g. shoulder) in a tomato-based stew until the meat had essentially melted, and venison and sauce become one. Deeply, richly flavoured, this ragu, almost remarkably delicious. The anolini, a style of filled pasta from Parma, presented a neutral, creamy counter, the fitting canvas for the sauce. Finely grated ragusano cheese provided intricate salty and savory notes. Intoxicating, this plate of pasta, and definitely in the running for one of my favourite dishes of the year. (As of today, it’s still on the menu, people: hint, hint, nudge nudge). $24.

The malfade with braised rabbit, chicory, infornate olives and piave cheese made for another captivating pasta. Malfade or mafaldine is a long, flat style of pasta with wavy edges that comes from Campania. Here, it combined well with the delicate, tender meat, the bitter greens and potent olives. Fresh chilies brought a touch of heat and balance, and the cheese did what great hard cheeses do, adding a touch of funky complexity. Wonderful. $24.

Cacio e pepe, a Roman standard, Impasto made with elicoidali, a pasta similar to rigatoni, but larger and with ridges that spiral around the outside of the pasta. This dish, another example of the simplicity and difficulty of much Italian food, calls only for pasta, pecorino romano cheese, black pepper and olive oil. Impasto’s rendition had great flavour, full of the salty, elaborate taste of the pecorino, balanced by the robust and floral pepper. In this instance, the kitchen had undercooked the elicoidali, but only just; a few moments more would have taken it from slightly crunchy into al dente. (This was, I must note, the only such instance I encountered at Impasto). Very good. $22.

There were other superlative pastas (spelt tortelli with potato, parsnip and stracchino cheese; bigoli with duck bolognese; bucatini all’amatriciana), but you get the picture. To touch upon some of the non-pasta courses I tried: a great salad of arugula, pine nuts and vento d’estate cheese; excellent crostone with gorgeous, house-made bread, stracciatella, cherry tomatoes and basil; a top-notch tartare of venison on par with that of any French-ish restaurant. Point being, if you don’t want or like pasta, Impasto can nonetheless please you. (But we can never be friends.)

Finally, a word on the porchetta. Impasto uses superior pork from St-Canut Farm and serves it with rapini and mostarda. Judging from its signature status on the menu, the strong recommendation from the waiter, and how often I’ve seen the dish come out of the kitchen, it must be a great dish, generally. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so when our table tried it: The pork had been cooked for far too long and ended up dry, almost inedibly so. The mostarda, as good as it was, couldn’t save it. Disappointing. $33.

As wines go, Impasto offers what you would expect of a restaurant of this calibre and character, i.e. private imports from all over Italy. Choices abound, and there quite a few bottles below the $60 mark, as well as some seventeen selections by the glass ranging from $11-16. Having tried some eight to ten varieties, I’ve been more than pleased with the wines themselves and the suggestions from the helpful staff.

Impasto is, to my mind, a perfect restaurant. That is not to say infallible, for no restaurant really is, but one clear in its vision, confident in its voice, and capable in its vocation. Five years from opening—a lifetime in fine dining—Impasto has not aged at all, and in competent hands of Chef de Cuisine Aicia Colacci, the restaurant remains relevant and worthy of recommendation. No small feat, in a city and segment that has become considerably competitive.

In the end, I think Impasto succeeds for the same reason GEMA Pizzeria does, or Chez Tousignant: not by reinventing the wheel, but rather making the wheel, well. This speaks to Forgione’s and Faita’s holistic approach to hospitality, i.e. their top-to-bottom attention to detail (branding, decor, etc.), respect for the customer, and consistent quality standards. In that sense, their small but significant impero might serve other restaurants as a study in how to do this business right.