“It’s a dichotomy.” Chef Craig Harding sums up Campagnolo, the restaurant that he and his fiancée, Alexandra Hutchison, own and operate on Dundas Street in Toronto’s west end. Inspired by traditional homemade Italian food, and charged with a fresh and modern energy, Campagnolo blends new and old to create something that is better than either.
The couple was inspired to create the unique dining experience in 2009. They both “like a real simple, rustic approach to dining.” Craig (who first began cooking because of his grandmother), along with Alexandra identified a trend that had begun to appear in Toronto: “Casual but really well done was sweeping the city.” The two jumped on the opportunity and nestled their modern take on classical cuisine into an intimate and welcoming location in the heart of the downtown core. “Identity is important,” Craig explains. Keeping a small team allows Campagnolo to stay personal. The staff engages with the clientele. They get to know the sensibilities of their regulars and can make recommendations to ensure the highest levels of service.
Campagnolo translates to “country bumpkin” in Italian, and Craig keeps a “farm to table” attitude towards the food. “Every day of the week you can find a farmer in Toronto.” He stresses the importance of having good suppliers, keeping things as local as possible, and staying seasonal. Harding’s relationships with Toronto’s local farmers and suppliers afford him the opportunities to source food one just can’t find just anywhere else. He has even come across some delicacies; most recently the John Dory fish, in such demand that he is only able to offer it for one evening. Craig is constantly adding “modern” and “refined touches” to his rotating menu, “One minute you’ll get a dish that looks very beautiful and very delicate, and the next minute you’ll get a huge pot of polenta with a ragu with seven meats in it.”
Operating a restaurant in Toronto has been an exciting and challenging adventure for the couple. They describe the city’s clientele as, “very adventitious and very well-versed in food.” They are also very aware that they are surrounded by a fierce set of competitors trying to do their own dynamic and bold things with food. This pushes the two to “maintain and evolve” at their own establishment. “Every few weeks, there’s a restaurant to go and visit,” Craig explains, “It forces you to step your game up.”
Effortlessly walking the line between modern and traditional, Campagnolo is more than a restaurant. It is a lavish night out and a cherished evening with friends old and new. It is exotic and surprising comfort food. It is something one needs to experience to understand, and it is one of the city’s great and unique gems.