Whenever I demand to a friend that they "just have to, absolutely must" try Toast, with its robin's egg blue walls, sunny yellow mirrors and white, airy lighting, I am reminded of a time in my life when I hated butternut squash. I had missed out on years of indulging in its buttery, nutty goodness, but I didn't even know it.
As far as I was concerned, squash was stringy and lackluster. I hated its texture, its orange color, the way it isn't quite sweet and isn't quite savory. It topped a very short list of foods I had resolved to live without.
But then I had an aha moment – I tried the butternut squash soup at Toast.
I hadn't ordered it, but I got greedy when my friend offered to let me try hers. After several heaping spoonfuls that really stretched the meaning of the phrase "just a taste," I was bowled over.
It was so bright! So decadent!
It was nutty, silky and completely void of the overpowering holiday spice you sometimes find in a super-sweet squash dish on the table at Thanksgiving. It had a little zip of citrus, a little tang, a little sweetness and a whole lot of depth and richness that I simply never expected from that boring old gourd.
It tasted, if you'll allow the poetic license, cheerful. Bright yellow-orange, topped with a sprinkling of green chive, it sort of looked cheerful, too.
If I hadn't loved Toast before, that soup certainly would have changed my mind.
The truth is, it's my go-to lunch spot. Owners Kelli and Billy Cotter have a good thing going with their Italian-style paninoteca. Traditional recipes and flavor combinations showcase the very best of the simple Italian sandwich shop.
The soup really sings, it's true, but of course it's better when paired with a toasty panini, bruschetta or crostini. Don't like all that crunch? Toast also serves tramezzini, cold sandwiches on crustless white bread. I'll be honest, I've never tried them.
I'm just such a sucker for the melted cheese, olive-oil brushed Italian ciabatta and perfect grill marks on Toast's tasty panini. The soppresata, fontina, arugula and mustard is my old stand-by. It's peppery and zesty, the mustard adds an unexpected zip and the cheese lends an almost earthy gooeyness.
Watch for the daily specials, which usually include two housemade soup varieties, one or two crostini choices, a panini, a dessert and a few wine selections that rotate with the season.
On a summer day, the herb pesto, mozzarella and roasted tomato crostini and a glass of Pepestrino make for a lovely afternoon snack. When it's chilly, I'll go out of my way to stop by Toast if the daily special is spicy lentil soup packed with pickled peppers.
A full and satisfying lunch will only set you back about $10, so try the North Carolina shrimp, radicchio and pancetta bruschetta and the herbaceous green salad topped with generous shavings of Grana Padano cheese. Next time you can order the rapini and sweet Italian sausage panini that's bursting with a floral bouquet of fennel.
Go again and again, try everything and say "Ciao" to the boring sandwiches served up at national chains.
The peppy Durham cafe's combinations of cured meats and cheese will make you feel like you're in a fancy Italian deli, but the food isn't fussy. It's just wholesome, hearty and downright good.
Isn't that how lunch is supposed to be?
Toast is located at W. 345 Main St. at Durham's Five Points intersection. They are open until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, so don't rule out stopping by for dinner, either. Their specials are posted daily on Facebook.