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Bar Centrale: A weak link in the Terroni chain

Bar Centrale
$105 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip

It is not my purview to review the customers of the restaurants I visit, but OMG, spending two hours at Bar Centrale is an entertaining tour of big money with its hair down. This is where Rosedale people go for dinner when they can't be bothered to schlep downtown. Go soon, before they tire of it and the show moves on.

There are no reservations here, but the perennial lineup moves pretty fast. Perhaps never before have so many $200 haircuts been in such close proximity – and so available for viewing by anyone who can buy a plate of pasta for ten bucks. To look at these gals, there's no such thing as an errant curl. As for their swains, khaki has never been cut so well.

At one table, two yummy mummies with the kind of bottle-blonde hair that never looks fake are debating decorators while their equally attractive poppets play on iPhones. The lighting in here is very kind, almost as good as Botox. Over the bar are clever tubular fixtures with filament bulbs. Behind the stainless-steel bar is a blackboard. It promos various wines and says: "Ask our cute Brazilian bartender for more details." The phraseology is cute too, but not too cute – just like the rest of the place.

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Being the newest member of the Terroni chain means striking just the right note of cuteness, being casual and informal but always tasteful, and of course referencing Italy, where everyone has spent so much time. At the front, under the "giornali" sign, are chic magazines in both Italian and English. There's a counter in front of the open kitchen, where there's no shame in eating alone, thanks to Centrale's community feeling. And what a great backdrop: The wall behind the open kitchen is a glass fridge filled with whole prosciuttos et al.

We ask for a taste of an expensive wine before buying a glass. But no, they don't do that. We ask what's in a dish. "I'm really busy," responds the server, so no, they don't want to do that either. Terroni is famous for their "no substitutions" rule, and customers kvetch at the other Terronis because they won't slice your pizza, (which isn't a problem at Bar Centrale, since pizza isn't even on the menu). But can you quarrel with success? Terroni number six, a.k.a. Bar Centrale, took Rosedale by storm, which rather vindicates owner Cosimo Mammoliti's philosophy of keeping it simple and authentically southern Italian.

For now, it's Rosedale's neighbourhood resto. It's amazing how tutored taste buds can lower their bar when it's both convenient and uber-cool. Nothing at Bar Centrale tastes bad and it all sounds great. Who wouldn't want Italian comfort food?

The Terroni brand, a clever construct, includes house-made pasta and small tapas-style dishes that reference fancy without being it. The crudo section of the menu is particularly felicitous for ladies who lunch poured into size-0 little black dresses. Whether it's Cumbrae beef or raw octopus, it's hard to put a foot wrong when it's raw. Except for the little shaved beet and carrot salad with the octopus, which is too salty.

Salt is the kitchen's bête noir. The otherwise fabulous house-special soup, verdure di Mamma Rita, is classic Italian, white beans cooked soft, some pureed for creaminess, sharpened by chard and deepened with croutons. It would be perfect – were it not over-salted. Same problem with tender grilled octopus with sun-dried tomatoes, sautéed escarole and both black and green olives. The too-salty olives turn fun into mouth-pucker. Same for otherwise fantastic fettucine with guanciale (cured pig cheek), artichoke and mint. Great ingredients, too much salt.

On other dishes, they go in the opposite direction and forget to flavour. Sicilian salad of fennel and orange is fennel sliced too thick with little savour save for the occasional frond. Panzanella salad is cucumber, cherry tomatoes and too few bread cubes. The promised red onion and basil is MIA, as is the taste. Same for the desserts: Salted caramel mousse is as pretty as a $200 haircut (caramel glaze, an erect chocolate tuile on top and a chocolate biscuit base) but it's bland tasting. Whipped almond pudding is lots of fun for people like me who think plain whipped cream is nirvana, but almond flavour? Not so much.

And some things they just plain screw up. Was the polenta cooked yesterday? How else could it get so dry and hard? Gorgonzola and mushrooms are normally one of the tastiest combos on the planet, but atop this polenta they feel merely greasy. Which could be from overcooking the gorgonzola, an unkindness to which no cheese takes well. And undercooking the spinach tortelloni has produced too much chew. Butter and sage on top with ricotta inside is a perennially winning pasta combo, but one eentsy-weentsy deep-fried sage leaf doth not a flavourful sauce make – no matter how charmingly they present it in a copper casserole.

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Once in a while they get it really right: Fritto misto, in an Italian newspaper cone, is ungreasy, crisp deep-fried shrimp and squid. One day the fish special is perfectly cooked black cod with couscous infused with asparagus and topped with shaved raw asparagus for added zing.

The service, on the other hand, is not as inconsistent as the food. It is uniformly lackadaisical. Which could be partly because the servers are sour from having to run up and down stairs all day: The cold kitchen is upstairs but the hot kitchen is in the basement. The restaurant's occasional misses are possibly a downside of chain culture: In a chain (and with six establishments in the city, that's what Terroni is) head office can design and decorate to trendy perfection and they can write a great menu. But it's the guy or gal on the stove who cooks the food – and that's awfully hard to control from head office.

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