Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cibo Bistro

Mezzaluna pasta

Mezzaluna pasta

I think it was still summertime when my friend and I first attempted to visit Cibo Bistro (@cibobistroedm), only to find that they were closed on Mondays. Since we had to postpone our meal there, it took us quite a bit of time to circle back around to the idea. It wasn’t until mid-November when we finally made a point of going to the restaurant again.

Located on 104 Avenue in Oliver Village between Safeway and MacEwan Residences, it’s slightly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of one of downtown Edmonton’s main arteries. I had made a reservation through OpenTable about a week or two in advance, but, as my friend was running late at the office, I called to have our booking pushed back. The hostess that I spoke to said it wasn’t an issue as there weren’t any conflicting reservations within that time frame. The two of us eventually made it there at about 6:15pm, and I was surprised to see, as the server led us to our table, that the place was still empty, save for the semi-private room near the back (although, it was pretty much full by the time we left an hour and a half later). With maybe just over a dozen tables in the space, it’s not large by any means, but still likely seats more than the city’s other lauded Italian restaurant, Corso 32 (read my review). Unlike Corso, however, the dimly lit space of Cibo Bistro looks a little more traditional with earth tones, leather upholstered chairs, cobble-like tiled floors, stone tiled walls and paintings of Italy.

As we perused the menu, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between its layout and the offerings of Corso 32. That means I was apt to do a comparison by sampling a few items, so I could truly see the difference. Both have made The Tomato‘s top 100 list for two years in a row. Corso has been No. 1 each time with Cibo trailing just a few spots behind (No. 6 in 2013 and No. 4 in 2014).

Arancini is one of my friend and I’s favourite Italian dishes. Since we had eaten that at Corso, it was a no-brainer to use that as a starting point for our showdown. That, along with the Salumi, served as our appetizers.

As far as arancini go, they are considered an indulgent antipasti because they can be quite heavy and filling. It’s essentially risotto that has been battered and fried until a crisp outer shell is formed. The filling at Cibo is mixed with roasted cauliflower and Fontina cheese and, once cooked, is generously sprinkled with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think that, even with all the rice and cheese, there was a lightness to these arancini that the ones I ate at Corso didn’t have. The bowl we received had 6 to 7 arancini, which we shared. The breading was perfectly fried whereas Corso’s were a little overdone, making the shell harder to break. The cauliflower added a little more texture to the risotto, so it wasn’t all just mush, and the cheese was nicely melted inside. I also believe that these ones were a lot less salty.

The salumi platter that evening was a steak tartar with shaved truffle served with a side of crostini. This was probably the best dish of the evening, no doubt about it. They say the meats are cured in-house, and the tartar was prepared so well that it literally melted in your mouth. Paired with the shaved truffle, this was a completely decadent starter. I would have gladly eaten that has my main meal. The board came with 6 pieces of crostini and there was enough tartar provided that we weren’t sparingly spreading it on the bread. In fact, I was piling the tartar on thick, so I have to say that this selection was worth it.

For our entrees, we had a harder time deciding. Our server was excellent and, to help, she described, in detail, each of the pasta dishes on the menu, including that evening’s special. We finally made our choices – I ordered the Mezzaluna and my friend chose the Pappardelle.

The food menu.

The food menu.

The Mezzaluna was ravioli stuffed with braised beef that is cooked until tender and then pureed, so it can be stuffed inside fresh, made from scratch pasta. The pasta shells were thin and prepared al dente. The sauce was a burro bianco (white butter) with Balsamico Vecchio (aged balsamic) and Crotonese Calabrese cheese, which was flavourful, but felt delicate. I particularly loved the used of the balsamic as a dressing, something that I hadn’t had in a long time. The sauce and the beef played off one another really well, so much so that I wanted more as soon as I polished off my plate.

The Pappardelle consists of fat ribbons of fresh pasta bathed in tomato sauce and served with braised lamb, mint and Pecorino Romano cheese. I had just one mouthful of the dish and the pasta had just the right amount of bite. The lamb was succulent and the sauce was subtle.

Pappardelle pasta

Pappardelle pasta

Unfortunately, we did not have room for dessert on this occasion. Plus, we were in a bit of a rush to make it to book club, but I will say that after our trip to Las Vegas and our meals at Giada in that city, had I been able to manage some sweets, I would have gone for the Zeppole (Limoncello and Mascarpone doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar). They’re certainly on my list for next time!

In the end, and I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last month, I’m inclined to say that, while Corso was excellent, I honestly think that my meal at Cibo was a tad better. And, I feel like that says a lot. The pair of restaurants has a lot going for them – fantastic food, fresh, housemade dishes, wonderfully knowledgeable staff – yet they’re also hindered (arguably by some) by small spaces that make them seem exclusive when, in fact, they’re not. They’re friendly, intimate atmospheres that are very welcoming, so perhaps it comes down to preference which one you would prefer. Based on my singular visits to Cibo and Corso, I found them both to be great hangouts. They’re equally quiet in terms of ambiance, making it easy to converse with your dining companions, which is a big pro nowadays in a world where dance music seems to be pumping everywhere else.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

After a few weeks of contemplation, my companion critic for that night and I agreed. Until I have a chance to revisit each, I cannot say with absolute certainty which will come out on top a year or two from now. Only time will tell. One of my friends who had dinner with me at Corso said that our meal there was one of the best she’s ever had. I’d be curious to see her thoughts of Cibo and her comparisons to Corso.

Nonetheless, examining my own experience of the food, which, of course, is the foundation of a stellar restaurant, I believe that Cibo has won my heart and my stomach. That is not to say I won’t be eating at Corso again, because I will, but contrary to what every other review or person has told me, Cibo is going to be my personal number one for now.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment’s involvement in the local community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Cibo Bistro.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Corso 32

The front of the restaurant with the matte signage on the window.

The front of the restaurant with the matte signage on the window.

A few years ago, I still lived at home. My mother owned a shop downtown in what is now known as ATB Place and the two of us would carpool to work together. My first encounter with Corso 32 (@CORSO32) was on one of those rides as we cruised along Jasper Avenue. One day, I happened to be looking out the passenger window as we headed east, and I spotted a small tenant space with a window that had just been christened with the name ‘Corso 32’. Matte transferred signage was all that distinguished the soon-to-be open restaurant from everything else that vied for your attention on this street. As such, it seemed to get lost in the fervor and it took a while before I managed to point it out again.

Fast forward to 2014 and I still hadn’t visited what is arguably now the best restaurant in Edmonton. I had heard countless recommendations from food critics, bloggers and friends, but, for some reason, I just had not been there. Having started my quest to visit all the restaurants, cafes and farmer’s market booths listed on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton, I realized that, if I was to truly get the full experience of their list, I would need to eat at the establishment that has topped it for two consecutive years now.

Our table was near the back of the restaurant. As you can see, it is quite small.

Our table was near the back of the restaurant. As you can see, it is quite small.

Knowing that Corso 32 is very small and also often has to be booked far in advance, I looked into making a reservation with the restaurant. They utilize the handy Yelp SeatMe system, so I was able to search for available times using the computerized calendar. Only serving Wednesday to Sunday from 5pm to 11pm, I wanted to dine there after work, so I wouldn’t need to go out of my way to get there on a weekend, or have to kill an exorbitant amount of time between office hours and my meal, so I kept clicking on various dates until a 5:30 opening on Wednesday, October 8th popped up. Booked about a month and half in advance, it’s not a lie when people say that it is difficult to get a table there on short notice. Seeing as how I didn’t really care when I ate, just that I did not want to have dinner at 9pm in the evening, I was okay with this. A table for four (all I could get), I had my dining companions lined up and ready to eat with me.

The evening finally arrived, and being that it was fairly early in the evening, it wasn’t full by any means. I learned later that they give each table a two and a half hour dining limit, so they can be sure to fit in two seatings each night. Not aware of that, our meal ran a bit longer than the allotted time as we opted to try and wait until a friend who was running late could join us. In the end, we were starving, so we went ahead and ordered our food without her.

Two of us opted to quench our thirst with glasses of sparkling lemonade while my other friend drank a couple of craft beers. To begin, we all shared a full size bowl of the arancini. If you have not had arancini before, it’s basically risotto shaped into balls, breaded and fried. Corso’s arancini is filled with speck (a fatty bacon or pork fat), cabbage and Fontina cheese. The balls are then decorated with finely grated Parmesan cheese. The dish is rich with a somewhat smokey flavour and entirely indulgent, but so worth the calories. I actually meant for it to be part of my main meal, which I had planned to pair with my plate of fried short rib. Unfortunately, the arancini was so good that it disappeared before the other dish was placed in front of me.

I have a love affair with short rib. When it’s cooked properly, the meat falls off the bone and it is so tender that it practically melts in your mouth. The fried short rib antipasti at Corso was just that. Served with a side of crostini and topped with shaved pear and arugula salad, it was another winner. I actually mistook the pear for radish, probably because they garnished the dish with radish as well. But, I should have paid more attention and realized when the flavour profile of the salad was more sweet than peppery. At the last minute, I also decided to get the side of beets. Prepared with ‘agro dolce’ (sour sweet) sauce, salted ricotta and crushed pistachios, it was a great accompaniment to what was left of my meat. The portion was also quite large, so I ended up taking quite a bit home for lunch the next day.

My two dining companions that were there chose to go with pasta dishes, which are made in-house from scratch. One decided on the cavatelli, the other the ricotta agnolotti. I had a bite of each, and they were both delicious. The pasta shells of the ricotta agnolotti were thin and cooked perfectly. It was actually a much lighter dish because the ricotta is creamy, mild and soft in texture. Paired with the swiss chard from Sundog Farm (@sundogfarmer) and a thin butter sauce, it didn’t seem like it would be too filling. On the other hand, cavatelli is thick rolled pieces of pasta that were served in what tasted like a rose sauce with spicy pork and fennel sausage, broccoli rabe and Pecorino cheese. The pasta was toothsome as the sauce was velvety, the sausage added a slight heat, the rapini brought some crunch to the texture of the dish and a little bitterness and the cheese a bit of saltiness. As my friend put it, it was like the food was making love to her mouth. I told her I would likely paraphrase her!

Our fourth finally made it as we were about to order dessert. Thankfully, our server knew her and she happens to be a regular there. Otherwise, they might have shooed us out earlier to make room for the second coming of diners (I’m so sorry to the people who arrived and ended up having to be seated in their sister business, Bar Bricco (@BarBricco), next door, which I’m sure is lovely as well, but not what they expected).

Three of us opted for the chocolate torta to finish off our dinner. Presented with salty, candied hazelnuts, it had that sweet versus savoury combo that I love. Wonderful as it was, I think two of us could have shared and it would have been more than enough to satisfy us both. It’s not actually a huge dessert, yet it is incredibly decadent and I found myself “forcing” it down because I knew I couldn’t let any go to waste. One person decided to go with the vanilla panna cotta, which was made with vin cotto, honey grappa and pistachios. I did not taste it, but it looked yummy, too.

By the end of the evening, the restaurant was pretty much at capacity and so were we. I had been told so many things about the eatery in the last two years that I had become worried that my expectations were too high, but the restaurant proved me wrong. I understand why Corso 32 and Chef/Owner Daniel Costa have the reputation they do. The food is fantastic, and the establishment is a good representation of how far Edmonton’s food scene has come and where the city’s foodies hope it will continue to go. Will Corso 32 top my own list of E-Town’s best restaurants? You’ll have to wait and see.