Caffe Ventuno-Il Negozio Nicastro

Ottawa locals have long been familiar with Nicastro’s, a local store supplying a variety of Italian and gourmet foods. They have several locations, including one on Merivale Road, one in the Glebe, and one in the Byward Market. The one in the Byward Market has long been a popular lunch destination for those who work or live downtown, as they serve up a variety of sandwiches, salads, soups and pastas perfect for those who need to ‘grab and go’. The location in the Glebe has recently expanded to include a small restaurant area, where similar foods can be served in a relaxed, cafe setting.

Then there is Il Negozio Nicastro, located on Wellington Street West. It opened just a few years ago and offers most of the same groceries and other treats as the other Nicastro’s locations. Since this location is within a reasonable walking distance of our apartment, we now have a variety of fresh pastas, homemade sauces, wonderful olive oils, imported espresso, Italian sodas, cheeses, chocolates, fresh breads and baked goods right at our fingertips. However, it also has a full-service restaurant attached, offering a more ‘casual fine dining’ experience than the other stores with attached cafes have. We’ve been there twice now, and I thought I’d take a moment to write a bit about our experiences.

The cafe itself is actually pretty nice, and separated enough from the store section that you don’t feel like you’re eating with the people shopping there. There is a wall to one side composed of small logs, cut so that you can see the ends of them. It makes for a fun conversation piece.

Service here can be a bit hit or miss. The first time we went the service was quite good, but Friday’s trip involved moving tables (they’d told us the window was reserved, then suddenly it wasn’t and they allowed us to take that table), dry, flavourless bread, a hostess who refilled our water glasses far too many times, and a server who seemed distracted much of the evening. In their defense, they may be a bit short staffed or training new staff; there is a sign in the window stating they are looking for both full and part time serving staff. However, that doesn’t explain why the bread was so awful. In a place that stocks fresh bread from local bakeries (including Art-Is-In) you’d think that they’d at least put a bit of effort into that.

The drink list here is a bit surprising, because most of the choices are a bit overpriced. We noted that there wasn’t much available by the half litre for under 20 dollars. Now, that may be in line with places like Juniper and Beckta, who pride themselves on their wine list and wine and food pairings, but I’m not sure it is worth it at a place where the wine seems secondary to the rest of the menu.

But how was the rest of our food? Well, I don’t often order calamari, but I decided to take the plunge this time, given the good reviews I’d read. I was pleased that I did, as my dish was piled high with calamari that were lightly battered, crispy and not at all rubbery. Rich decided to try a new dish from their daily specials menu, a stack of fried fennel fritters served with a mint sauce. It was delicious as well, although we both felt it would be better if the fennel were sliced much more thinly before breading and frying. My main was a new pizza they are thinking of adding to their fall menu. It had chili flakes, olive oil, roasted red peppers, goat cheese and kalamata olives on a flatbread-like crust. I liked the flavours a lot and would order it again, although I did find the toppings were a bit sparse. A few more olives and a few more peppers would have really filled out the pizza much better. Rich’s main was from their regular menu, a chicken and olive oil pasta, which he said was delicious but fairly unremarkable.

We decided to pass on coffee here, but grabbed two servings of gelato as a final treat. I’m fairly sure the gelato is from Piccolo Grande, so no surprise here it was creamy and flavourful and the perfect end to a meal.

Would we go back? Sure. The food prices are very reasonable and the food itself is delicious, even if there were a few issues with the rest of the experience. However, I think next time I’ll skip the wine or only have a single glass. For the price of our dinner with drinks, we could have had dinner somewhere a bit more upscale, and that just seems wrong somehow.

Caffe Ventuno, 1355 Wellington Street West, 613-729-9100. Dinner for two with wine, $100.

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