Review: Il Terrazzo | 555 Johnson Street | Victoria
12 Apr 2010 · by Brennan Storr · Be the first to comment!
For someone who grew up in a town with a population that was, at the time, predominantly Italian, I know very little about "Il Bel Paese." For a long time most of what I knew came from the Godfather films and Friday dinner at Tony's Roma and I naturally assumed most Italians were hirsute, husky-voiced men who knew their way around a kitchen and to whom I should avoid owing money. Even after six years of working in Bocci's, our specialty delicatessen, which at first was aimed toward attracting the town's aging Italian population, I was only able to expand my knowledge of Italy in two areas: cheese, which while invaluable gave me little insight into the country and its people, and finance. It seemed impossible that anyone could owe money to an Italian since it meant the Italian would have to have parted with it in the first place. Every Sunday while we sat around a table laden with pasta, sauce and meatballs, my Italian relatives would speak of the old country's verdant, rolling fields and simple way of life in such loving tones that I assumed it to be an Eden filled with olive groves and young men whose refusal to move out of their mother's home was based on devotion and not at all indicative of serious character flaws.
Only in the last few years, after briefly visiting the country itself, reading books like Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah and seeing films like Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, did I began to understand that all was not well in the land of cannoli and chest hair. With allegations of systemic government corruption extending back as far as world war two, gathering racial tension, and organizations like the Mafia, 'Ndrangheta & Camorra riddling the power structure at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, the true face of Italy was much swarthier than I'd ever imagined. Luckily if I should want to return to my days of blissful ignorance when 'Ndrangheta could just have been a last-ditch ploy to win a game of Scrabble, or perhaps the Italian word for dragon, I can always count on the food to take me there.
For years I've believed that the only thing available for purchase in a narrow, dimly-lit lane came in red balloons. What do I know? Il Terrazzo looks positively cozy tucked away in Waddington Alley next to Willy's Bakery. Long a mainstay of Victoria's food scene it's been voted as the city's best Italian restaurant for the last fifteen years according to their website, a boast I have no trouble believing. Nicky & I arrived early for our 6:15 reservation and were seated right away towards the back of the restaurant, near the enclosed patio. Fans of Il Terrazzo will be familiar with their subdued lighting and exposed brick walls, but as this was our first visit we were happily taking it all in. There were few tables vacant but the noise level was low, at least at first. Over the course of the evening that would change and by the time we were ready to leave conversation was only possible at a volume appropriate only in Scenes From a Marriage.
There was a small library of menus on the table, including the menu proper, a drinks list, specials menu and a wine list bigger than the Book of Mormon. This is always a difficult admission in polite company but I do not like wine. The only times I have purchased wine for personal consumption it has come in a three-litre jug which afterwards is used as a makeshift musical instrument; the wine itself is combined with cheap scotch to make a shot I have dubbed "The Dirty Hobo". Why "The Dirty Hobo"? Because that is precisely what you smell like after drinking one and after three or four waking up in a gutter is not unlikely.
After some deliberation I decided on 'Agglio arrosto e Cambozola' ($12), a roasted garlic bulb served with rosemary flatbread & a wedge of Cambozola cheese, to start and the Cioppino ($28), a seafood stew with mussels, prawns, scallops, tuna, fennel, chipotle peppers, tomatoes and flatbread, as a main. Nicky had the bruschetta ($8) to start and the 'Carre d'Agnello" ($36), a Dijon-crusted rack of lamb with rosemary & demi-glace for main. My starter was delicious, the two heads of garlic perfectly roasted, the flatbread hot and the Cambozola not too strong. Nicky's bruschetta, with tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and shaved pecorino cheese, was also nice but she found it wanting compared to mine.
When paying thirty dollars for an entrée I've come to expect the portioning to be done with an eye-dropper and have the yawning expanse left on the plate covered up by Rorschach designs in demi-glace. The chef at Il Terrazzo confounded those expectations by generously portioning both entrées and taking the time to make sure the rest of the plate didn't look like an afterthought. Nicky's Dijon-crusted lamb was one of the best she'd had, medium rare, moist and full of flavour. There was a showing of vegetables but she cleverly managed to pretend she hadn't noticed and never registered much of an opinion on the subject. My cioppino was spicy and piled high with forlorn former residents of Neptune's kingdom, all of which managed to take on the stew's flavour while retaining their own and the flatbread was great for scooping up what my spoon missed. I am not a small man, when visiting the doctor he often represents my BMI in pictograms rather than numbers as it's less taxing on his hand, but by the end of the meal I had been incapacitated by food. However, my lovely wife, who weighs all of ninety pounds, managed to comfortably find room for a trio of crème brulée ($8); chocolate, orange and vanilla custard, obviously made from scratch and each better than the last, the orange being best of a good lot.
We left Il Terrazzo satisfied and considerably heavier that night, thrilled to have finally get in on something everyone else has known about for a while. Things back home have changed since the days when "Little Italy" stretched from the Fourth Street tracks all the way to Downie Street. No longer do grammar schools have to close for a week each year because of critical vowel shortages while BC Tel prints our phonebook, and if you're out at the pub you're now more likely to have your girlfriend stolen by an itinerant Australian than you are to be punched in the mouth by a drunken bricklayer.
"Il bel paese" isn't all it's cracked up to be and the town I grew up in is long gone, but as long as I've got Italian food this good a short walk away I don't need nostalgia. I may however need bigger trousers.