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The Underappreciated Macelleria Atlas

One of St. Clair West's three traditional butcher shops.

This winter I have been walking more along the stretches of St. Clair West that I’m pretty sure want to be called Wychwood Heights and Hillcrest Village. Or at least that’s what the street signs claim. It’s getting to a be a cliche to describe a section of Toronto as diverse, but you really can walk past quite the variety of restaurants and other food businesses from Bathurst to Oakwood.

Fillipino from Manila Food is the eastern anchor for a list that runs through two of the city’s most popular Jamaican spots (Albert’s and Gerry’s), that are across the tracks from El Fogon, one of Toronto’s only Peruvian restaurants. And that’s just the first two blocks. Further west there are stops for churrasco (the now slightly less dingy Churrasco of St. Clair) and tapas at the fun and affordable Mezzetta. The Stockyards and Catch Restaurant both made that list of Canada’s 50 Best Restaurants that Macleans published and the Wychwood outpost of Pizza e Pazzi has been warmly reviewed and covers the all-important “casual Italian fare” base. In between there is the usual mix of brunch-esque bakeries and Asian spots that each cover the cuisine from at least two countries.

After Arlington and almost to Oakwood there is a family-owned, Italian butcher shop called Macelleria Atlas that deserves more attention than it gets. The store-length meat counter has plenty of the usual suspects from grilling steaks and boneless chicken breasts to a wide variety of fresh sausages. Whole rabbit is wrapped discreetly in brown paper and there are some slightly uncommon off-cuts like pigs’ trotters in there too.

But because those sausages are made in house, the open refrigerator case across from the main counter also has tubs of hog casings for those who want to try to make their own. Naturally, the butcher will also break down pork shoulder for you.

Dry-cured salami from Macelleria Atlas.

Dry-cured salami from Macelleria Atlas.

The real gem, in my experience is the dry-cured version of the house sausage. It’s a simple Italian pork salume seasoned with just salt and coarse black pepper, but it’s brilliantly delicious. I’m going to need a bit of detour to describe why this claim is (slightly) more objective than just me saying “mmmm tastes good.”

In Lucky Peach IV Ben Wolfe had a piece called “American Microbial Terroir” that was high-grade crack for me and my fellow food science nerds. He ordered five dry-cured salamis from specialty salumerias across the States, ran a taste test on them and then put them under a microscope to link specific microbial colonies to preferred flavours.

What does that have to do with Macelleria Atlas on St. Clair West? Forgive me for quoting at some length: “Orange-yellow crusts are a good sign of deliciousness. These crusts are formed by the bacterium Staphylococcus xylosus. The presence of this species is considered a sign of excellent aging conditions and potential for high concentration of typical salami flavors.”

That’s an accurate description of what the St. Clair West salami looks like. It’s very similar to the Saucisson D’Arles that Wolfe ordered from Olympic Provisions in Oregon and that his tasters thought was one of the most delicious and complex.

World-class or not, the point of the connection with the Lucky Peach article is that these dry-cured sausages have a specific flavour that is unique to this location and “terroir”. I have seen eight-foot lengths hanging from hooks in Macelleria Atlas as they age. That’s a technique that is increasingly rare in Toronto and given the general more-is-better view on food-safety regulations, probably isn’t long for this world. Even if this butcher shop moved a few blocks away that distinctive funkiness that meets the deftly balanced flavours of pork, salt, and black pepper just wouldn’t be the same.

It’s a dangerous game to predict a long future for an established, low-margin business in Toronto. (Riverside’s The Avro was added this week to the list of businesses that have been pushed out due to rent increases.) Other St. Clair business owners have complained that the streetcar right-of-way has made the strip less busy and slashed business, but I think the three new condos tell a different story. Walking and public transit are just replaced cars as the preferred means of transportation. We are already fairly well-saturated with fast food as Tim Horton’s, Pizza Pizza, McDonald’s, KFC, Second Cup, Subway, and Starbucks (the last two twice over) all have franchises. Added to that possible lack of potential tenants, landlords will also have to take the tenaciously empty storefronts into account before raising rents.

If you live nearby, go in and check out Macelleria Atlas and try that salami. We’re not the only neighbourhood in Toronto with a traditional butcher shop and if you’re lucky enough to have one near you I recommend that you go in and find out what they do best.

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