Balsamico - Enter as strangers, leave as famiglia

Balsamico celebrates its sixth anniversary this month. But the journey really begins back in Mostar, Bosnia, where owners and husband-and-wife Linda and Ned Spahic grew up.

"The war started in 1992. We were both 17, so we left right before. Ned ended up with his family in Norway and I ended up in Italy with mine," Linda says.

Linda stayed only two years, moving to Canada in 1994. Ned stayed until 2001. He had planned on becoming an engineer, but met an Italian chef in Norway, who imported everything from Italy. Ned had a clear talent for cooking, as the chef told him, "You’re not Italian, but this is as Italian as it gets."

A perfectionist by nature, Ned honed his craft in Norway and then back in Canada at Sette Mezzo Restaurant at Bathurst & Eglinton for eight years. But after being a chef for 22 years, he wanted to open his own place, something small and cozy, but true to his vision.

The couple opened Balsamico on Yonge between Eglinton and Davisville during the recession. They’d both lost their jobs and had two small kids to take care of. On top of that, the location at 2029 Yonge St. was what many called cursed – three establishments had opened and failed in a short time span – so they were encouraged to look elsewhere.

But they fell in love with it and could see the charm and potential right away – it was "big enough to accommodate a good size (45 inside – 8 on the patio), but small enough to create a great atmosphere," Linda says. "It was the perfect mix of everything."

So they renovated it, opening up the front and adding in striking, but pricey chandeliers from Montreal. Linda had purchased just one because of the price, but loved it so much, she called the store and ordered two more.

"Vintage, with a little bit of modern," as Linda describes it, the room is filled with wood chairs, tables and banquette surrounded with ochre walls, festooned with artwork and photographs. At the back, there’s a stone bar, and a very tiny window into the kitchen where you can see Ned and his sous chef working away. Just above the window, there’s a vintage sign that reads - "Enter as strangers, leave as friends," which truly sums up both the couple and the restaurant.

The Spahic’s live in the neighbourhood. "We know the people. We shop here," Linda says. "We take our kids – 10 and 12 years old – to kickboxing across the street. We really are the neighbourhood. It’s beautiful – we have great clientele. We are so blessed with the neighbourhood we’re in."

A customer stops by to say hello, Haron, a regular. He orders the same two things for him and his wife when he’s here – the Veal Provimi and the Grilled Fish.

"I’m not a customer, I’m family," Haron insists. He says "Grazie is okay, Coquine is okay. They’re all good. But this one here – it’s delicious. They’re Famiglia. Which is why I can give them a hard time." Which he kind of does, but in a respectful way. Clearly, he likes things a certain way.

Linda says, "We try to have good quality. We have to try and please customers like Haron," she says with a smile. 
The dedicated clientele like Haron, want healthy options, according to the couple. They prefer fish and lamb over pizza and pasta, and want grilled items such as calamari and antipasto over fried foods. Kale salad is not on the menu, but so many people have requested it, it remains a special.

So while you can "eat like you would at home with Nonna," as Linda puts it, Balsamico is not traditional Italian. "We are true to Italian roots. We serve homemade pasta, thin crust pizza and use tomatoes from Italy, but we’re known mostly, for our seafood. We grill fish whole, often European Sea Bass and sell a lot of salmon, shrimp, octopus, calamari, and lobster ravioli."

In addition to the customer’s demands, it’s also how the couple eats – they eat and cook mostly seafood at home, not pasta.

Families with kids are the ones that often order pizza and pasta – otherwise, the big sellers here are seafood and meats such as Milk-Fed Veal Scallopini, Grilled Lamb Chops and Steak.

The secret to Ned’s cooking is simple – there are no secrets. Everything is made from scratch with the freshest, best quality ingredients. Sometimes he uses some herbs, but otherwise, it’s just salt and pepper. He likes the fresh ingredients speak for themselves.

But his cooking skills should not be overlooked. In order to make the octopus tender, he steams it first. It relaxes the muscles, taking all the tension out.  His homemade focaccia may take a little longer than par-baked loaves from some big supplier, but it’s one of the best you’ll ever have. That and the extra touch of a base of fresh herbs - thyme, oregano, basil, pepper flakes – mixed into pure organic extra virgin olive oil to dip the bread into.  It’s practically impossible not to devour the whole thing, but you must leave room for dinner.

Everything is cooked a la minute, so nothing is partially cooked, waiting to be warmed up or finished. Branzino (European Sea Bass) and salmon are delivered every morning except Saturdays (they don’t deliver this day. Instead, Ned goes to City Fish Market and picks it up himself . Calamari, shrimps and octopus is delivered two to three times a week.
Housemade pastas and pizzas are made from Dopio zerio ("00"), with pastas available in gluten-free and whole-wheat varieties as well.

Consistency is very important to the couple.  Ned not only always tries to achieve the same quality, but strives to use the same brands. "It’s difficult, to find a high class of meat at an affordable price," he says. "Burrata imported from Italy? I can’t always get it." Despite the neighbourhood asking for the restaurant to open for lunch, Ned stands his ground – he closes for lunch so that he can go to the market and pick fresh ingredients for the nightly pasta and fish specials. "That love and passion you put in? That impacts the quality of the food," he says.

It’s important for an Italian restaurant to have good wines, so Balsamico carries 40-50. "We’re not downtown, so we can’t raise the prices. Besides, I don’t want to be that kind of restaurant," says Linda.

And cocktails have recently been upped thanks to a longer list, created by Michael Maffei, who recently came in fifth out of 20 finalists at Toronto’s Made with Love mixology competition. This is not only a bonus for the clients - it has brought out a younger crowd who likes to dine later in the evening.

In addition to phenomenal food made from scratch with quality ingredients, the Spahic’s make a big emphasis on service and atmosphere, considering them the three most important qualities of a restaurant, and a combination that you don’t find often. Linda says, "From bread to espresso, from beginning to end, it has to be perfect."

Almost all of the staff has been here since the beginning (including Linda’s brother Danny), and the couple is onsite as often as possible, while juggling kid picks up and homework.

Balsamico was not just built on love, it exudes it. It’s one of a handful of restaurants in Toronto that you enter as strangers and leave as friends. Or more accurately, as regular customer Heron describes it, "Famiglia."

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Balsamico is open six days a week for dinner.

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