Toro Taberna is now open at 14-16 Oakwood Ave. in West Hartford, serving an entirely gluten-free menu of Spanish-style tapas as well as larger shareable plates.
By Ronni Newton
Chef/owner Tony Camilleri has opened at least eight or nine restaurants over his 25-plus years in the business, and he’s always looking to do something different, to make people happy.
Toro Taberna, which officially opened Feb. 2 at 14-16 Oakwood Ave. in West Hartford (the driveway is actually on Park Road), is primary Spanish cuisine, with a focus on tapas as well as larger shareable plates – all of which has showcase Camilleri’s creativity.
Camilleri opened Toro Loco in Farmington (1274 Farmington Ave.) in January 2020, and for Toro Taberna he has once again partnered with Stretch Altenhein (also the owner of Nautilus Tattoo) and James LaFond (also the owner of Grey Matter IT) to open the Spanish-style pub – what he hopes will become a “cool neighborhood space” – where guests should feel just as comfortable hanging out to watch a game over a beer and some light bites as they will for a special date night.
The team is on a roll – a gluten-free roll, but more on that below – and Toro Taberna is actually their third venture. While the dining area was being built out, they started operating Loco Urban Street Food out of the same kitchen, in the space that was formerly occupied by Park & Oak, which closed in July 2020. “It’s our fun little to-go, something we came up with over the pandemic,” Camilleri said, with items that like burritos that wouldn’t work for the menu at Toro Taberna.
“We want people to have a good time,” Camilleri said. “My thing is, I don’t think it makes sense to continue to open places similar to others,” he said. Instead he’s looking to fill a void, to do something that’s different.
“We don’t want to be compared to anyone else,” he said.
Camilleri fell in love with Spanish cuisine – and with tapas – in the 3½ years he spent as senior executive chef at Barcelona.
Toro Loco’s menu took the tapas approach and applied it to authentic Mexican dishes, but Camilleri thought the Spanish focus would better fill a niche in West Hartford, and would work well for the Park Road neighborhood.
Like Toro Loco, everything on the menu at Toro Taberna is gluten-free, an approach that evolved organically.
“I was writing the menu for Toro Loco and was probably about halfway through and I said, ‘You know, I don’t have anything that’s got gluten in it.’ I decided to stick with it,” he said.
“Everything we make is based on organic, non-GMO corn we get from Mexico,” Camilleri said, and they make their own corn masa dough, which is a “labor of love.”
They use the masa to make their own tortillas. He said he just didn’t see any need to bring flour into the kitchen, making it completely safe for those with celiac. They’ve even come up with a way to make yucca and rice flour churros, which sealed the deal, Camilleri said.
Highlights of the Toro Taberna menu include the Bravas – spicy potatoes ($7-$13). “We have a selection of different toppings. It’s something they do a lot of in Spain,” Camilleri said. He plans to continue to expand that section of the menu.
Camilleri said the Pintxos ($7-$9), served over the house-made tortillas, have gotten good reviews already in just the few days the restaurant has been in its soft-opening phase.
Along with the Picaduras ($6-$13), many of the dishes are already vegetarian, and can be vegan if the cheese is left off.
A standout on the menu are the Fideos ($16-$24), which are made for sharing (or a large appetitive) and provide Toro Taberna’s twist on paella, with gluten-free pasta taking the place of rice. Topped with a sunny-side-up egg, varieties include seafood, chorizo, chicken, and vegetarian.
There’s also a full bar with a selection of curated cocktails, wines sourced from small producers in Spain and South America, and draught as well as canned and bottled beer.
The Toro Taberna team did much of the build-out of the former Park & Oak space themselves. Stretch designed the mural and bull logo, and they built the table tops.
The tables at Toro Taberna are separated by plexiglass. Camilleri said he hopes to remove the barriers once the pandemic is over, but will keep the seating well spaced. When the weather warms up, he’s hoping to work with the town to accommodate a 40-seats patio.
“This pandemic has wreaked havoc but it also creates opportunities for those who want to search them out,” Camilleri said.
Less than three months after Toro Loco opened, the pandemic hit and they had to close to in-person dining. But Camilleri and his partners – armed with creativity and undeterred by hard work – have continued to expand. “We don’t have small ambitions. We’re super motivated,” Camilleri said.
“Myself and my partners, we just look at it as opportunity. You adapt and you move forward.”
Their fourth venture – and the third in West Hartford – will be Toro Loco Casita, now being built out in the former Petals and Paws space at 22 Raymond Rd., next to Whole Foods. He’s hoping it will open in time for Cinco de Mayo.
“That will be Mexican street food,” Camilleri said. “A down and dirty taqueria,” he said with menu items special to that location.
“It will have its own cool flair,” he said, a low key space to stop by for a quick lunch, or hang out on the patio, where he hopes to have seats for 40.
Camilleri said there may be a grand opening at Toro Taberna in a month or two, depending on what happens with COVID. Right now they are just serving dinner, but Saturday and Sunday brunch will begin in about two weeks. “We will also have a really good happy hour very soon,” he said.
Camilleri welcomed the state’s change in the closing time requirement, extended from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. this week.
“I think any little bit they keep giving us back will be helpful,” he said. “Now people can come out at 9 o’clock and still grab dinner. I think it will help all the restaurants.”
For more information about Toro Taberna, follow them on Facebook or call 860-773-4003.
Photos of the food and drink menu can be found below.
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