Cocktail lovers in Toronto have an authentic place to worship: Church Aperitivo Bar, which opened in February 2012 in a former Slavic Pentecostal parish. The space boasts 16-ft. cathedral ceilings, a white marble bar and original exposed brick walls and wood beams; the former raised alter now houses an open kitchen.
Church Aperitivo Bar owner Sandra Cassaro wanted to bring new style and panache to the city’s Queen West neighborhood; she also wanted to hook Toronto on her love of the Italian traditions of aperitivo culture.
The concept of aperitivo—early-evening, light-alcoholic drinks and complimentary appetizers—is “very new to Toronto,” says Cassaro. “People aren’t as familiar with the aperitifs and digestifs, and they are totally surprised by the free snacks. Once they experience this, they keep coming back.”
LET US DRINK
Church Aperitivo Bar relies on a wide array of Italian spirits—aperitifs, digestifs, grappa—that are enjoyed on their own, and fashioned into cocktails, both amaro (bitter) and dolce (sweet). Whimsically referencing the sacred origins of the space, drinks include favorites such as the Saint which mixes Vanilla Smirnoff vodka, prosecco, Cointreau, lime juice and apricot nectar and sells for $14; Divine Intervention, with Aperol, prosecco and soda ($12), and the Trinity: gin, Campari and Carpano Antica ($15).
This past summer’s best seller was the Ascension Lemonade, a cocktail of vodka, simple syrup, fresh muddled raspberries, lemon juice and soda that sells for $14. The drink might have been so popular because Church’s guest-base currently skews a bit more heavily to female guests.
Bitter drinks pair better with foods, Cassaro says, while sweet aperitivo drinks are best enjoyed on their own. The foods offered with the cocktails, prepared by Calabrian-native chef Fabio Sacca, include authentic Italian antipasti and stuzzichini—roasted pepper, fried rice and cheese balls, salumi and crostini.
Church Aperitivo’s dinner menu includes an 8-oz. Angus Strip Loin sliced with grilled asparagus, mixed wild mushrooms and shaved parmigiano for $25, and whole roasted Branzino with a side of arugula and orange salad for $28. Pastas, which include gnocchi in a tomato sauce with burrata and basil pesto and pappardelle in a wild boar ragu, can be ordered as a single serving (ranging in price from $15 to $18) or to feed four people (priced from $50 to $62).
Cassaro says the average guest spends $8 to $15 during Happy Hour (which is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays), often ordering from the aperitif list or Peroni bottled beer (both $5 during happy hour.) “And while some guests just come in for the aperitivo, I’d say about 50% to 60% then stay on for dinner,” she adds.
Looking ahead, Cassaro is excited about promotions such as Church’s special occasion chef tastings at which each night is inspired by a different region of Italy. She also thinks the new emphasis on Chef Sacca’s house-made pastas and sauces may bring in more men. ·
Monica Kass Rogers writes about food and beverage for several national publications and her vintage revival blog LostRecipesFound.com.