PROPer pasta in Hillcrest

[attach]2968[/attach]It seems to me there’s only one restaurant designer left in Toronto.

A member of the minimalist design school, his/her palette consists of coffee in all its shades – from blackest espresso to creamiest cafe au lait. For just a moment, it makes one long for the Victorian kitsch of Ed’s Warehouse, where noise was absorbed by dozens of embellishments and acres of carpet.

At the People’s Republic of Pasta (PROP), bare tables and floors echo every moved pot in the open kitchen as a resounding crash.

Music? I know it’s in the background somewhere.

The wine list has a good selection, mostly Italian, and all for a very reasonable $39 a bottle. We start with a pleasant Valpolicella served in capacious glasses that allow the wine to breathe. It’s light and very drinkable.

My guest is hungry so starts with soup and an appetizer. Oddly, these come together so, inevitably, one is cold by the time he gets to it. Zuppa Carnevale – named for the chef – is capon broth with rice, strips of mozzarella and ginger ($6). I had heard this was excellent, but to my taste it’s a little greasy and flat – there simply isn’t enough ginger to really lift the bland rice and mozzarella beyond the mundane. But my guest finishes every mouthful. The appetizer of asparagus spears with a parmesan sauce ($9) is also disappointing. The sauce is superb, creamy and flavourful, but the asparagus is unsatisfactorily soft. This might be the result of its wait in a hot sauce while the soup was consumed.

My own appetizer, on the other hand, is a revelation. Grilled polenta is topped with a rich ragout of crimini and porcini mushrooms ($8). A host of textures and flavours really make this dish sing. I finish every gorgeous forkful.

Spaghetti Carnevale sounds so intriguing that my guest can’t resist trying it. A blend of caramelized red onions and fat Black Mission figs tossed with garlic and olive oil works remarkably well ($17). The flavours easily infuse the thin strands of spaghetti in a nicely balanced dish. “Every mouthful has different flavours going on,” my guest raves. “It’s delicious.”

I spot chestnut risotto on the menu – only available seasonally, it says. Of course, I ask and yes, it has just been included. I feel like I’ve won a prize. Now this chef knows his risotto. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Plump pieces of chestnut abound in a delicate risotto cooked to perfection with just a small bite in the rice ($18) – the pinnacle of risottos. A gentle grating of nutmeg perfectly finished the dish. So far, I’m a happy diner, but alas, this is about to change.

From a large list of desserts only two are made in house, so we choose those. My brandy and rum custard sponge cake ($8) is a layered confection with chocolate and plain custard layers, a hint of something alcoholic and not much else. It is dry and even a really good cup of accompanying coffee ($2) doesn’t help.

Zuppa Inglese is the Italian answer to trifle. Traditionally, fingers of sponge cake are dipped in Alchermes liqueur and covered in thick custard. My guest’s version has powdered chocolate on top as well ($8) but neither of us is particularly impressed with it. “It tastes much better than yours,” my guest points out, an undoubted advantage. The desserts are a surprising let-down after the excellent main courses.

Before PROP, Trattoria Giancarlo and College Street Bar were the old stomping grounds for Giancarlo Carnevale and Marlene Simone.

Their move to this rapidly gentrifying St. Clair neighbourhood just west of Bathurst, should encourage others to follow suit. Would we recommend this spot? You bet – both the pasta and risotto were heavenly. But maybe you could try Metropolitan’s fig and port ice cream for dessert instead.

PROP, 770 St. Clair West. 416-792-3313.