Eat Italian Style: Carbonara di Mare

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Rob Gentile is a chef whose star is rising steadily. And deservedly so. An inveterate inquisitor, he’s always on the lookout for ingredients that are new to him. He then devotes considerable effort to finding inventive ways to weave them into his contemporary Italian dishes. Clearly, he’s a chef who’s happy when he’s at the edge of his comfort zone – a condition he’d like to see embraced by more chefs, pro and amateur.

Since 2009, Gentile has made his name as the face of Buca restaurants, now counting three acclaimed locations in downtown Toronto, each with a unique style and focus. His is a modern approach to Italian cuisine that puts seasonal Canadian ingredients on a pedestal. He’s an expert with meat, a butcher in his own right, and a master charcuteur. Brit chef Jamie Oliver called him a “humble genius” – a compliment Oliver has backed up by partnering with Gentile’s King Street Food Co. to run the Canadian chain of Jamie’s Italian restaurants.

Gentile has worked in restaurants since he was 13, having schooled in his grandmother’s kitchen. He trained at Toronto’s George Brown College and worked for 10 years under the guidance of celebrity chef-slash-mogul Mark McEwan of Top Chef Canada fame. He’s learned his mentor’s lessons well, setting about assembling his own culinary empire. “You really get a sense of what it takes to be at the top of your game,” he says of McEwan. “The passion, drive and desire to make sure everything is perfect, to never take no for an answer and to always accommodate every customer no matter what they require.”

This year, Gentile and his team partnered with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura to bring Michelin-starred Italian chefs to Toronto for a series of dinners and educational activities involving George Brown College. This summer, events with chef Andrea Berton of Milan’s Ristorante Berton will coincide with the opening of the Pompeii exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Gentile’s latest restaurant, Buca Osteria & Bar (above), sits in the city’s tony Yorkville neighbourhood. In the glimmering open kitchen, he and his team obsess over a seafood-centric menu, where only sustainably harvested, ocean-fresh delicacies grace the counter. A seat at the edge of this nerve centre offers a window on precision cuisine executed with Zen-like mindfulness. From this close vantage point, Gentile takes great joy in turning adventurous diners onto new flavours, encouraging his customers to broaden their palates as they taste and learn. It might be a fried trout hatchling, a wild Canadian pink shrimp or the most incredibly gossamer ravioli you’ve ever tasted.

“Any chance I get, I shove things into their mouths,” says Gentile. “For me, that’s the most exciting and gratifying thing.”

*Click the next page for a Carbonara di Mare recipe

Carbonara di Mare

This is a seafood version of a classic carbonara, swapping out the guanciale (cured pork cheek) or pancetta for smoked herring roe known as bottarga. Tradtionally, bottarga is salted cured fish roe made from mullet or tuna. Gentile gets his from Société-Orignal in Quebec, where they make it from Canadian herring. If you can’t locate the real thing, Gentile suggests grating any smoked dried fish. Pair with a big, oaky Chardonnay.

250 g Arva flour or Type “00” Flour
180 g egg yolks
4 g kosher salt

In a bowl, combine flour and salt. Pour onto a tabletop and make a well; pour in egg yolk. Slowly distribute eggs through the flour, using a spoon to mix from inside the well. Knead dough by hand until flour is completely incorporated and dough is silky smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Cut dough into quarters and roll out to 0.5 cm, dusting with flour to avoid sticking. Begin sheeting dough through a pasta sheeter, folding over and rotating every two to three steps to strengthen the dough.

Once dough is 1.5 mm thick, cut into 5-inch square parcels; dust lightly with flour. Cut dough into 1.5 mm ribbons (use spaghetti cutter attachment for pasta sheeter if you have it) and portion into four evenly-sized nests.

Carbonara di Mare
80 g Spanish onion, diced
15 g olive oil
10 g unsalted butter
Spaghetti (recipe above)
180 g smoked herring roe bottarga (Société- Orignal*), grated
Freshly cracked black peppercorn
240 g white wine
60 g finely grated pecorino crotonese
4 pieces duck egg yolk

In small saucepan, combine onion, oil and butter; cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes or until soft and translucent. Set aside.

In large pot of boiling salted water, cook fresh pasta for 2 to 3 minutes (if using dry, cook for 8 to 13 minutes, according to package directions. We recommend a granano bronze-die extruded spaghetti as a substitute.)

Meanwhile, in high-walled sauté pan, cook ¾ of the smoked herring roe bottarga, freshly cracked black peppercorn and onion soffritto gently until pepper and bottarga are toasted. Deglaze with white wine and reduce by half.

When pasta is cooked and still quite al dente, add pasta to sauté pan along with some cooking liquid. Finish cooking pasta in the pan, feeding it a little cooking liquid as needed to create a glossy creamy sauce.

Plate pasta high in individual bowls, finish with fresh and finelygrated pecorino cheese and a raw slightly warmed duck egg yolk. Sprinkle with remaining bottarga.

*Canadian herring roe bottarga available through Société-Orignal.

If you are unable to source smoked herring roe bottarga from Societé, substitute another smoked dried fish.

Serves 4