Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Zaza Espresso Bar & the Best Cannoli in Hillcrest Village

lunch at Zaza
I was recently passing through Toronto on my way to Vancouver and found myself at writer-friend Nina Munteanu’s current house-gig (she is an insufferable gypsy) in the heart of Hillcrest Village—not far from the University of Toronto, where she is currently teaching.

She was so happy to see me. “I’ve got a nice surprise for you,” she offered. “Well, it won’t be a surprise for long, because I’m going to tell you about it.”

I nodded. She never could keep a surprise to herself for long. This one took all of thirty seconds.

“Listen to this,” Nina said, picking up a postcard with that rather infamous eager smile of hers. I glimpsed a picture of an espresso and cannoli—very promising indeed! “Zaza Espresso Bar,” she read to me, “is a place where you can enjoy the warmth, energy & passion of a typical Italian espresso bar in your own neighbourhood!” She winked at me. “I thought of you right away. And now, here you are!”

I’ve always had impeccable timing. I’m Toulouse, the Cool Travel Cat, after all.

People underestimate a stuffed cat. They think we exist outside the parameters of time. In a way, they’re right and that’s why our little stuffed insides and outer shells tap very nicely into the quantum energy entangled in the network of all that was, is, and will be. :-3
Lilacs blooming in Hillcrest Village
It was Victoria Day in Canada—the queen’s birthday—and everyone was enjoying the warm sunshine and pleasant breeze outside. We walked through a lovely residential area, along Davenport Road, through Hillcrest Park then up a gently rising slope, along Turner Avenue, past stately brick and stone homes covered in ivy,  then up Arlington Avenue to the top of the hill at St Clair Avenue. The walk had taken us past small yards and gardens, some rioting with colour, others more sedate and subdued by order. All presented a mosaic of beauty and a celebration of Nature. We passed several lilac shrubs in full bloom. My nose twitched with glee at the delicate scent that wafted into my very being. Robins, sparrows and wrens chirped in a kind of chaotic harmony. 

Zaza patio
Then, like a sudden wind, we were there. Zaza! On our approach to St. Clair, we passed a wooden fence and beyond it a flower-festooned patio greeted us. Zaza occupies a red brick building on the corner of Arlington and St. Clair. Fine Italian music flowed out from inside.  I smiled. This is what Toronto is famous for: the surprising little gems nested in the heart of a community with the promise of genuine Europe. In this case, Italy.

Their promotional material describes Zaza as providing “the highest quality & decadent products in a comfortable, warm & inviting space with attentive, accommodating & welcoming staff.” It was as if they had little moi in mind! Anyone who has the courage to juxtapose the promise of highest quality with decadence earns my respect—if they can pull it off. And Zaza does. 
Owner Tina and staffer Bojana

Tina, the current owner has made this franchise her own with friendly competent staff and original interior design. Zaza beans, she told me, are roasted in Italy with a company that has more than 40 years of experience. Good beans make good coffee, she added, but to make great coffee it takes passion, patience and experience. Amen!

A well-stocked display of excellent gelato ice cream beckoned as we entered. Bojana told me that it comes from Woodbridge, where Italians make all things wonderful.  Over 30 enticing flavours included ciliegia (cherry), fragola (strawberry), mojito, cioccolato, nocciola (hazelnut), nutella, and tiramisu—Ooh! La! La!
Bojana adds the filling in my cannoli

We ordered two espressos and croissants (cornetti) with prosciutto, cheese and arugula.  After eyeing the ice cream, my sights landed firmly on the cannoli and I knew I would save some room.  Cannoli, which means “little tube”, is an Italian pastry dessert that originates from Sicily.  Filling is piped fresh into the sugar-dusted shells for that perfect contrast of creaminess and crispness. Fillings are traditionally made with ricotta but can also be custard or mascarpone.  

We sat outside in the shade of an umbrella in the patio that faced Arlington and watched the pedestrians come and go with flowers or daily supplies from the grocery store across the street. Old men in hats had a friendly argument on the street corner. Bicycles led by running dogs sped by. A large man ambled by with a black chiwawa. Streetcars clanged along St. Clair. 

Nina did some crazy dance moves in her chair to the upbeat Italian music.

When we finished our croissants, our eyes met conspiratorially. The cannoli.

Bojana dusts my cannoli
Chairs slid back and bodies moved forward and we made our way back indoors. After making me a fresh cannoli, Bojana shared that their filling is made with ricotta cheese, lemon, sugar and chocolate chips … and magic—perhaps it’s love. Because one bite into the pastry and cheese filling and I was embraced with that kind of euphoria that makes you silly.

Cannoli is a staple pastry in the best Italian bakeries in Toronto. If you live in or are visiting Toronto, like me, and are looking for a classier tour destination than all the Tim Hortons, here is a list of some of the best Italian bakeries in the GTA that feature cannoli: Rustic Bakery; North Pole Bakery; Francesca Italian Bakery; Bar Buca, Messina Bakery; Tre Mari Bakery; Riviera Bakery; Nino D’Aversa; and LaManna’s Bakery.

Toulouse shares cannoli with his friend Mouse
Well sated on excellent espresso and cannoli, we were about to leave when Nina suggested that we get more cannoli to share with my good travel friend, Mouse. I happily obliged. And Mouse was very happy I did. What are good friends for?

1 comment:

  1. That was great cannoli! Minunat, as my dad would say... molto saporito, as Toulouse would say if he were here... Alas, he's gone already...