WORDS BY CAI SEPULIS; PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘I had no idea all this was back here,’ my TOQUE Partner (and partner-in-crime) Chris Tiessen remarks in amazement as we make our way down the quaint garden path, round the side of the sweet century-old building, and catch our first glimpse of the restaurant’s impressive two-tiered backyard patio and expansive rear lawns. Seated at tables underneath a large white tent (replete with hanging chandeliers) or among mature trees and remnants of stone walls scattered throughout the lawns, diners populate the scene. Just yards away, the Grand River flows by – and, to seal our impression of an unrivalled idyllic landscape, a family of swans serenely bobs up and down on the water.
It’s a refreshing summer evening in late June. Chris and I have been waiting for a long time to dine here – at La Fontana in the heart of Elora. But with seeming constant lockdowns throughout this past year, we’ve had to postpone again and again. It’s definitely been worth the wait. While restaurant owner Denis Fontana leads us down the aforementioned garden path to our table – in the lawn as close to the river as possible – the hectic cacophony of the town (with all its tourists and wedding parties and locals) dissolves into the background. In its place, more soothing and tranquil sounds of low chatter, the faint clinking of cutlery, and the calming thrum of the river take its place. Idyllic, indeed.
‘It feels like we’re at some intimate garden party, or a reading at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival,’ I remark to Denis as we take our seats. ‘This would be the perfect place for a wedding,’ Chris adds, spotting a picture-perfect pergola positioned beneath a massive tree. ‘We actually have twenty-five weddings booked already for this summer,’ Denis announces – with some amount of confident pleasure. Gesturing toward the pergola, he continues: ‘We have the most serene space for the ceremony over there, while here in the dining area we host elegant receptions. And,’ Denis adds, ‘we’re in the midst of transforming the upper floor of the restaurant into a bridal suite.’ As I imagine how well this beautiful space might work as a wedding venue, I am distracted by a swing – hanging down from one of the tree’s impressive boughs – rocking ever so slightly in the breeze.
A server arrives with pints of Elora’s Borealis Pale Ale and a beet and burrata starter. With beets done three ways, a generous portion of fresh burrata, and basil, arugula, and balsamic drizzle, the dish absolutely sings – both on the plate and in our mouths. Having soon polished off the burrata, and with pints in hand, Chris and I take up Denis’s invitation to tour the restaurant proper. We gather in what used to be the living room of this former century home. The wide pine plank flooring, central staircase, and floral wallpaper give its domestic history away. Now, though, the room serves as the restaurant’s pizza kitchen, with a massive wood-fired pizza oven sitting squarely in the middle of the space, while stacks of wood, prep counters, and a makeshift bar (for both cocktail and espresso-based drinks) take up most of the rest of the open concept space. When indoor dining is allowed once again (hopefully by the time you’re reading this piece), this room will also serve as the restaurant’s main entrance. And what an entrance it is. With the fire burning, and dough flying, and servers picking up orders, the space offers up as much culinary theatre as it does stunning food and drinks.
Denis tells the pizza chef to prepare a classic margherita pie for us. Within five minutes the dough’s been rolled, topped, and baked. Final flourishes of fresh basil, olive oil, and sea salt complete the process. Chris and I are each offered a slice and, with the first bite, melt into our own personal heavens. ‘The secret’s in the dough,’ Denis tells us. ‘We cold ferment it – a process of rising and resting – for sixty hours. And if you come to my pizza-making classes,’ he adds with a laugh, ‘you can get the recipe.’ And he’s right – the dough truly is fantastic. Fluffy on the inside with a crunchy shell and beautiful charring on the crust.
When the three of us head back outside to our table, Denis points out a small vegetable garden featuring heirloom tomatoes and a selection of herbs – all of which are incorporated into the restaurant’s seasonal dishes. We settle in at our table once more, to savour the last slices of pizza – and accept more dishes and drinks from our server as they arrive, seemingly spontaneously, from the kitchen. A charcuterie board with a house selection of homemade pickled vegetables, meats, and cheeses; a wild boar belly dish with soy glaze, celery root, carrot slaw, and gooseberry; a bottle of Chiantari from Sicily. ‘I think the boar is my favourite dish so far,’ I tell Chris and Denis as we stare out at the Grand River. The sun is setting – transforming the landscape into some sort of ethereal realm. ‘The celery root puree is phenomenal,’ adds Chris as he loads up the perfect forkful with boar, puree, gooseberry, and slaw. ‘And,’ he continues, ‘the meat. So tender.’
After a while Denis excuses himself, leaving Chris and me to finish up our meal to a chorus of crickets and frogs. A refreshing breeze pours off the river. I finish my last sip of wine as I watch the swans drift by, and bask in the beauty that surrounds us. I am grateful for nights like this. For this great company, memorable food, and an enchanting venue.
A perfect summer evening.