Don't let my six foot Canasian appearance fool you ... I'm pretty sure I was Italian in a previous life! I can't live without pasta (and can do without rice), I talk with my hands (A LOT), family is pretty important to me, I will drive across the city for a well-made, handcrafted cappuccino, and I have a secret obsession with fashion (although I spend 80 percent of my time in Lululemons and sweatpants). And, when the weather gets chilly or I seek comfort and solace, I crave authentic Italian food!
When I found myself on the Nike Pro European Tour, as a last-minute addition nearly 20 years ago, I had no idea the impact my travels throughout Italy would have on me. To this day, I remember the people, their faces, their friendliness, acts of kindness, genuine smiles and laughter ... and the delicious food that I found on every street corner. Across the Atlantic Ocean, I found the same beautifully crafted food in two cities I lived in, New York and Chicago. With large Italian immigrant communities in both cities, I experienced the tradition of Italian recipes (passed down from grandma Nonna, herself) on plates served before me. The dishes are so simple, with just a handful of carefully selected ingredients, and flavours nurtured by hours of preparation and care, to create a comforting and unforgettable experience that hits all five senses when sitting around the dinner table.
When I moved back to Calgary, I didn't expect to find the same quality and tradition at local eateries in the city ... BUT I DID! Below is a list of my favourite Italian restaurants here in Calgary and why you should make the effort to visit them when you need a welcoming plate of goodness to share with loved ones:
With four locations here in Calgary (Crowfoot, Willow Park, 32nd Avenue NE, and 17 Avenue SW), Chianti Cafe has a sentimental place in my heart. As a varsity athlete at the University of Alberta (in Edmonton), "Chianti's on Whyte Ave." was my favourite restaurant for pregame meals when we played in our home gym. The staff always treated us like family, kept a never ending basket of fresh rolls at our table, and introduced me to fresh made pasta and a wide variety of homemade sauces. Back then, my "GO TO" was the Insalata Mista and Fettuccini Alfredo. Now that I can enjoy my meal with a nice glass of Malbec, my favourites have evolved and include:
- Appetizers: Zucchini Fritti (breaded zucchini) and Zuppa Di Cipolla (baked onion soup)
- Mains: Ciopino Al Chianti and the Modigliani
- Miscellaneous: Chocolate Mousse
For more information, visit www.chianticafe.ca.
Located in Inglewood, at the corner of 9th Avenue SE and 9th Street SE, Cinquecento (which means "500" in Italian) Cucina reminds me the restaurants I would wander into in the trendy areas of Rome. Known for their award-winning pizza, it's the perfect place to meet up with friends for a few drinks on the patio during on a hot summer's day and the ideal destination for large gatherings and celebrations where guests can enjoy a welcoming environment where conversation, laughter and hand gestures are highly encouraged. In addition, with a sexy ambiance and live music every Saturday, it's also a great spot for a special "date night" and a table for two. Chefs Gennaro Silvestri and Rocco Bartolotti are magicians in the kitchen as the food is as delicious as it is beautiful! You can taste the freshness of the dough and sauces made daily in every bite ... and I haven't been disappointed with anything I've ordered on their menu! My favourites include:
- Appetizers: Prawns (sauteed in Sambucca) and Roast Beets
- Mains: Gnocchi (tomato sauce and basil) and Quattro Stagioni pizza
- Miscellaneous: Tiramisu (dessert) and the Italian Sunset (cocktail)
For more information, visit www.500cucina.com.
When I first moved back to Calgary I lived a five minute walk from Chinook Mall and found the best Happy Hour in the city at Double Zero Pizza! From 3:00pm to 6:00pm, Monday to Friday, you can get half-sized appetizers (a decent portion), beer in bottles, cans and on tap, and glasses of wine (select varieties) for five dollars each! I would bring my laptop, tap into the Wi-Fi, do some work and enjoy a deliciously filling lunch for under 25 dollars! Even though I've moved far south from the Chinook location it hasn't deterred me from meeting up with friends for food, festivities and ... SHOPPING! At both Double Zero locations (Chinook and in the Downtown Core) you can try some of my favourite things on the menu:
- Happy Hour Menu: Calamari, Marinated Local Beets, and Pickled Mussels
- Appetizers: Mushroom Crosta, Risotto Fritti, and Warm Brussels Sprouts
- Mains: Linguine Carbonara and Formaggio Finale Pizza (the dough is chewy and flavourful and the honey takes it over the top)
- Miscellaneous: Chocolate Torta and Sicilian Cannoli
For more information, visit www.doublezeropizza.ca.
With a rich history here in the city, Mercato has been providing Calgarians with quality Italian foods for over 20 years. Recently expanded to two locations (one in Mission and the other in West Springs), Mercato offers an Italian market and restaurant under one roof. The market makes it easy for Calgarians to find authentic deli items (imported meats and cheeses), hard to to find Italian produce and dried/canned goods (dried pasta, extra virgin olive oil, truffle oils, and jarred tomatoes), handmade pastas made fresh daily, and ready to "heat and eat" meals packed daily and made from quality ingredients (and a whole lotta love). The restaurant side, with direct access to all these amazing ingredients, offers dishes made from recipes with generations of tradition. With "family style" portion sizes and a traditional group experience, be sure to visit Mercato with a group of good friends for an enjoyable evening. Here are a few of my favourites to include in your order:
- Appetizers: Bruschetta and Cozze (steamed muscles with saffron and fennel)
- Mains: Risotto (perfectly seasoned and masterfully prepared with squash puree and pistachios), Papardelle (with mushrooms and sweet peas), and Tonno (grilled yellowfin tuna with fresh herbs)
- Miscellaneous: Cavolini (carmelized brussels sprouts), Fagiolini (green beans with shallots), and the Cappuccino (which is masterfully prepared and the perfect finish to any meal)
For more information, visit www.mercatogourmet.com.
What you may not realize when you walk into La Pulcinella, located in the heart of Kensington, is that there are decades of family history behind the restaurant's modern Italian look and feel. Famous for his authentic Napoletana pizza, Chef Domenic Tudda "literally" feels at home at La Pulcinella, which shares the same address as the kitchen he grew up in (where his father, Joe Tudda, opened the original Stromboli Inn back in the 1970s). This modern take on an Italian restaurant and bar is quaint, casual, and intimate ... with incredible food that keeps you coming back for more! And the pizza is truly an experience worth the trip alone ... true to Napolitana tradition with a fresh made dough and a crust that literally melts in your mouth! But ... the menu is more than just his famous pizza, with antipasti and appetizers for sharing, fresh pasta and gnocchi paired with homemade sauces, and delectable desserts!
When I first came to La Pulcinella, I was welcomed to a beautifully planned "presso fisso" (fixed price) menu with crispy mushroom agnolotti, buttery and beautifully prepared white fish, and the most incredible Walnut and Honey Gelato to finish. It made me wish I didn't live SO FAR AWAY from Kensington ... otherwise I would work my way through EVERY handmade flavour of gelato in the display case (sigh)! For now, these are handful of my favourites from the menu:
- Appetizers: Antipasto Classico (cold cuts and cheeses), Caprese Salad (with imported Burrata cheese, shipped in daily), and Tempura Di Parmigiano (parmesan cheese, tempura batter and balsamic reduction)
- Mains: Prosciutto E Rucola Napoletana Pizza (prosciutto, cherry tomatoes, arugula, parmigiano, and basil) and the Pappardelle Di Bosco (with wild mushrooms)
- Miscellaneous: Homemade Gelato (by Domenic) - Nutella, tiramisu, and walnut (with honey)
For more information, visit www.pulcinella.ca.
Disclaimer: I have not yet visited Stromboli Inn (in their location in Bridgeland) and assume I will be updating this list when that time comes. Peter ... expect me sometime soon!
When I first wandered into PZA Parlour, in the old Ceili's building on Macleod Trail and Southland Drive, I didn't know what to expect. With minimal signage and a sandwich board outside eluding to "take out pizza" I had set my expectations fairly low. Well ... when I walked in I literally had to pick up my chin off the floor as I felt as though I had been magically transported to an outside cafe along the streets of Venice! The inside of the building was bright, welcoming, and whimsical. With an authentic Vespa and Italian style bar at the entrance, ample seating, greenhouse windows, large outside patio, and big family room in the back ... PZA Parlour makes you feel like you've just crashed an Italian family gathering!
Looking at the list of restaurants in this blog post, this is makes total sense since this restaurant is also connected to the Tudda family (Stromboli Inn and La Pulcinella) as Tony Nicastro is the son of Pina and Joe Nicastro (the daughter and son-in-law of Joe Tudda). Pina and Joe opened up Villa Firenze in Bridgeland, which is now operated by Tony. In fact, you can see real family photos in the back room (images of the family at home in the kitchen and gathered together celebrating life's precious moments.
Since PZA Parlour opened, I have made this a frequent stop (when I am too lazy to cook and seek amazing food and wonderful service). Some of my favourites on their menu include:
- Appetizers: Portobello (baked portobello mushroom with brandy reduction), Gamberetti (jumbo black tiger prawns with persimmon aioli), and their fresh baked Focaccia Bread (with their soup of the day ... DELICIOUS)
- Mains: Pesca Del Giorno (fish of the day with the right combination of sides and risotto), the Pasta Carbonara (a twist on the classic), and Pizza #4 (Quattro; with mozzarella, gorgonzola, parmesan and swiss cheese)
- Miscellaneous: Limoncello Cream Puff and Ciambelle (Italian doughnuts with Nutella)
Disclaimer: I have not yet visited Villa Firenze (either) and assume this restaurant will ALSO find its way onto this list in the near future. Tony ... I may double up on my visit to Bridgeland to see both restaurants!
For more information, visit www.pzaparlour.com.
STAY TUNED ...
Well ... it looks like I've got more work to do as I seem to have missed some of the city's Italian restaurant "gems". As I eat my way through Calgary, one plate at a time, you can see my adventures on my social media pages using the links at the top of the page. Check back for updates!