Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nello’s Cucina Italiana (St. Albert)

The giant plate of Carbonara pasta.

Always looking for a deal and to try somewhere new, my fiancé and I recently ended up at Nello’s Cucina Italiana in St. Albert. We stopped in to use our dinner Groupon on a Sunday night at 6:00pm. We had reserved a table in advance to ensure a spot; however, it wasn’t actually all that busy during that hour.

It’s a cute, inviting restaurant with a bit of a European flair: warm lighting and wall colours, tiled floors, and paintings of Italian landscapes. Nothing fancy, just relaxed and casual. As we were left to make our decisions, I took a look around. There was a table of two about to leave with a huge bag of leftovers. Then, a few minutes later, the guests seated next to us received their dishes. The portions were massive. This was not going to disappoint.

In the end, my fiancé opted for the Pollo Parmigiano ($23.50) and I selected the Carbonara Pasta ($22). We both stuck with water for the evening, and complimentary bread with butter was provided to start.

Considering that the Pollo Parmigiano really doesn’t come with a whole lot other than a flattened breaded chicken breast topped with tomato sauce, parmigiano, and mozzarella cheese that is then baked in the oven, this was still quite filling. To go with the chicken, there is a choice between the Di Casa (house) or Caesar salad. He went with the latter of which they certainly gave a generous amount, especially when taking into account the size of the plates used to serve all their meals. I found the greens in the salad to be quite fresh. There was plenty of dressing to coat everything. The croutons were crunchy and buttery and I enjoyed the bacon bits for that added saltiness. Along with the salad, the chicken had been sprinkled with extra Parmesan for good measure. Dried chili flakes finished it off. Personally, I think the ratio of tomato sauce to melted cheese was perfect. It created a seal that kept the heat in the meat, and added that unmistakable heartiness to a very comforting dish.

Getting ready to take a bite of carbonara pasta.

Arguably though, the pasta options are where patrons will find the best value for their dollar. Sure, pasta is pretty inexpensive to cook at home. Yet, when it comes to restaurant quality pasta, Nello’s most definitely does not skimp. I swear that the pile of Carbonara that was placed in front of me was almost the size of my head (the pictures don’t do it justice). It was a giant plate of spaghetti sautéed with chopped bacon, mushrooms, fresh herbs, parmigiano, and eggs. As expected, it was relatively salty. Nevertheless, the sauce was pretty creamy, and every single bite was enhanced by the bacon and/or mushrooms. As my fiancé noted, by the time he finished eating, it appeared as if I had still barely made a dent in my supper. At least half of it was packed up to go (and reheated as dinner for two the next night).

A slice of the tiramisu for dessert.

Had I kept on devouring my food, we wouldn’t have had room for dessert. It seems that their usual offerings include either a Crème Brûlée ($9) or Tiramisu ($10). We chose to share an order of the classic Italian sweet. Seeing as how I dislike coffee and anything flavoured that way, it really was atypical for me to go with the tiramisu. But, my fiancé favoured it, and I was willing to give it a try. For the most part, it was alright. I would have preferred more ladyfingers. The thin layer of cookies used didn’t soak up enough of the liquid, leaving behind a small pool underneath that made the dessert somewhat soggy. Otherwise, it was surprisingly light enough on the coffee that I didn’t mind the taste much.

Overall, our time at Nello’s was wonderful. The service we experienced was kind and attentive, and the kitchen must have a great rhythm as we were in and out in just over an hour. However, I expect that if the intention of one’s visit is to hang out for the whole evening, the establishment wouldn’t have any issue with that. It comes across as a place where family and friends can feel free to catch up with each other over food and drinks. It’s also hard to beat some of their daily specials, such as Bring Your Own Bottle Mondays (no corkage on wine), All You Can Eat Pasta on Tuesdays (this one had me intrigued), and Kids Eat Free Sundays. This is a spot that my fiancé and I can now add to our favourites.

Their list of daily specials.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Old Spaghetti Factory

Place settings haven’t changed for as long as I can remember.

If there are any restaurants I’d be likely to avoid, Old Spaghetti Factory would fit the bill. At the very least, the one at West Edmonton Mall checks all the boxes. There’s almost always a wait to get a table, it can be crowded, and it’s often filled with the din of noisy children. In spite of those downsides, it’s really hard to say no to a fully inclusive meal for under $20 per person or under $15 when it comes from the lunch menu.

Where else can one spend that much and get unlimited bread, a soup or salad appetizer, a main, dessert, and coffee or tea? The answer is a resounding “nowhere.” For that reason, Old Spaghetti Factory has become one of my family’s favourite meeting spots. We’ve been going there more regularly since last year when the restaurant offered holiday deals on their gift cards over Christmas (purchase $25 worth and receive a bonus $10 to be used by mid-March). This year, my fiancé and I received a couple sets and, at the beginning of February, we got together with my parents to redeem the first $35.

Sourdough bread with whipped butters!

We already had plans earlier in the afternoon on the Saturday that we dined, so we ended up arriving just in time to take advantage the lunch specials that run until 4:00pm. My mom and dad had both placed their orders already. They were snacking on a loaf of sourdough and that heavenly whipped garlic butter. Seriously, I don’t even know why they still pass out the regular butter. Do customers even bother using the latter? Between the two options, it’s not even a competition. Whenever our table is cleared by the servers, it is, without a doubt, going to be strewn with pots of unused regular butter that are probably destined for the garbage bin.

Regardless, it didn’t take long for us to get our coffees, teas and starters. Everyone else at the table chose to go with the Minestrone Soup while I decided on the Crisp Green Salad with ranch dressing. The soup has a hearty tomato base seasoned with herbs and filled with conchiglie (shell) pasta and veggies. The salad is a mix of lettuce, red cabbage and julienned carrots. It’s fresh enough, although nothing too special.

For our mains, my dad opted for the Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich with Fries ($11.50), my mom and my fiancé both selected the 6 oz. New York Steak Sandwich ($14.25 each) — hers was medium rare with a side of spaghetti in clam sauce, his was medium served with fries — and I got the Lunch-Size Fettuccine con Pollo ($11.95).

Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich with Fries

Everything looked pretty appetizing. I’m a fan of their regular Chicken Parmigiana, so I assumed that having the breaded chicken topped with marinara sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese in sandwich form would be just as good. Perhaps it would be a bit starch heavy considering the ciabatta bun and the fries, but the fundamentals of the dish would still stand.

The New York Steak Sandwich comes open-faced with the meat sitting atop a slice of garlic bread. Again, it’s quite a starchy dish when the fries or pasta are accounted for. The steak looks large as it covers a decent amount of surface area. However, it’s actually cut thinly, which means the kitchen has to be careful not to overcook it. Despite the meat appearing to be prepared as requested, it was somewhat tough when I had a few bites of my mom’s steak. Honestly, it’s hit or miss at Old Spaghetti Factory whether or not the meat will be okay. I prefer it to be more succulent. Occasionally, that’s what one will get there. Other times, it’ll have more chew. Yet, it’s hard to blame them when it’s such an inexpensive outing.

I’m not entirely sure how I forgot to snap a photo of my Fettuccine con Pollo. Nevertheless, I can describe it. Sautéed chicken and mushrooms are tossed in a tangy white cream sauce with the pasta and then laid in a ceramic dish and topped with mozzarella and cheddar cheese before being baked in the oven. My lunch stayed hot the entire time we were eating. The cheese was gooey and in abundance, and the sauce coated everything evenly. There was more chicken and mushroom than I expected, too.

Spumoni Ice Cream; I almost forgot to take a photo of this, too.

Next up, after our entrées were polished off or packed up, was the dessert. This is my favourite part of eating at Old Spaghetti Factory. Spumoni ice cream — chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio swirl — is kind of tough to come by at the grocery store (I do know that Chapman’s now has a gelato version), so I definitely consider this to be a real treat. It has the right consistency where it shows up at the table perfectly firm. And, for me, the green pistachio portion is what makes it special, so I tend to eat around it and save that flavour for last.

Our receipt decorated by our friendly server.

When I take in everything happening at the restaurant, I can see that it runs like clockwork with staff dancing between tables and chairs, dropping off meals, carrying dishes away and, all the while, they do it with a smile. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an unhappy server at Old Spaghetti Factory. In fact, on this particular day, ours joked around with us. When we got our bill, she’d drawn a giant heart around the total, written a “thank you” at the top of the receipt and stuck a smiley sticker to it as well.

I feel like that receipt is pretty representative of the eatery. Old Spaghetti Factory has been a mainstay in the city for as long as I can remember. Sure, the West Edmonton Mall location may have gotten a facelift a few years back, but it is ultimately the same friendly place with affordable food that people remember. It’s welcoming to anyone and everyone and it will continue to be (as will the Downtown spot) for years to come.

Daily drink specials at Old Spaghetti Factory.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (Magrath)

Korean BBQ Chicken Pizza

Famoso‘s original Jasper Avenue location was one of the first handful of local restaurant reviews I wrote on this blog. I’ve been a loyal customer over the years, but with the introduction of delivery service through SkipTheDishes, I started having the food dropped off at my condo and I stopped going into any of the physical locations.

Fast forward to January. I had a Groupon on hand for the Magrath Heights Famoso at Rabbit Hill Road and 23 Avenue. My fiancé and I popped in for an early supper on a Sunday afternoon. When we arrived, the server indicated that we could sit wherever we liked. We ended up grabbing a cozy booth and she dropped the menus off.

I took a look at the space and thought I’d make note of the table number, so I’d know what to tell them at the till during our order placement. As it turns out, the number was missing. I asked the server if the restaurant was now full-service and she confirmed what I thought. The manager mentioned that they switched to that template about a year and a half ago. This is actually preferable because it never really made sense to me to have customers get up from their seats. In the long run, they were still paying for staff to work the restaurant during the remainder of the meal and I don’t think it really saved anyone much time.

On this occasion, we opted to get two 12″ pizzas: the white Cavoletti ($17.35) and the seasonal Korean BBQ Beef ($18.35).

Cavoletti Pizza

The Cavoletti is my all-time favourite pie at Famoso and, ever since I introduced it to my fiancé, it has become his as well. The combination of the soft, chewy, slightly charred dough topped with prosciutto crisps, oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, Gorgonzola cheese, dates, walnuts, and honey is always satisfying with its balance of saltiness and sweetness. I call it a game changer.

Korean BBQ Pizza

Our second choice of the Korean BBQ Beef was actually surprisingly good. There was a generous amount of oven-roasted hand-pulled beef covered in house-made Korean BBQ and hoisin sauce. It was sweeter than expected. Yet, the duo of a mild fior di latte and a stronger cheddar cheese, along with chopped green onions, helped to tone that down.

This was a really enjoyable dinner that was speedily prepared (we were in and out within an hour) and provided leftovers for lunch the next day. We even received a couple of vouchers to come back for half off our bills during their Gratitude Week that ran from January 21 to 25, and we took them up on the offer twice.

As usual, the Cavoletti pizza was a staple. However, we also decided to try some different items: a New World Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza, a half order of the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls ($11.95) and the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta ($16.35) with added Chicken ($3.35).

Sweet BBQ Chicken Pizza

Admittedly, the Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza was disappointing. We did alter the recipe by asking them to omit the cilantro as neither of us likes the taste of the herb. That left roasted chicken with honey smoked BBQ sauce, fior di latte, smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, and onions. I don’t think there was enough of the sauce or that the mozzarella tasted like it was smoked at all. If it’s smoked properly, that scent comes off the plate immediately and the flavour packs a punch, but it was missing completely. Maybe in place of cilantro, some spinach would have been good to bring in a little bitterness. That, or a more intense cheese such as feta.

Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls

Regarding the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls, these were decent. Their Campania tomato sauce is so fresh and tasty. I love that they drown the mozza balls in the stuff. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to the garlic flatbread. Our only issue with the dish was that it wasn’t warm. While we could tell the cheese had melted as it was still soft in the middle, it wasn’t all that gooey and it had cooled considerably by the time it made it to us.

Pistachio Pesto Primavera Pasta

I was quite impressed with the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta. Although I would have liked to have seen more of the linguini pasta on the plate, they certainly did not skimp on the roasted zucchini and mushrooms, green peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken. The house-made pistachio pesto cream sauce was lighter than what might be found at other places, but there was enough to ensure that everything was evenly coated. We didn’t think we’d manage to finish our bowl of pasta and whole pizza that night. Yet, both items were so good that we polished it all off.

It seems that the best time to visit is in the middle of the afternoon on weekends though. We never had a problem finding a table at those times and the service was always more attentive. On our last visit, we went after work on a Tuesday night and the location was packed with people, mostly families, out for a meal. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait as we managed to grab the only available table for two. Despite that, the service was still pretty quick and friendly.

The Famoso chain of restaurants is one that I’ll keep recommending to people because there’s a comfortable consistency. Plus, it’s a local success story and I think that patrons appreciate that aspect of the business.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Villa Bistro

Braised Short Rib

To my surprise, this summer, I was scrolling through my OpenTable app when I came across a new restaurant called Villa Bistro. It was the first I’d heard of it, so I decided to Google the business. As it turns out, the trusty Free Press Bistro on 100 Avenue and 104 Street had been sold and renamed. Villa Bistro’s goal is to serve high-end comfort food, which, in a city that seems to be in the throws of winter for half the year, seems appropriate.

I kept the new eatery in mind for the past few months, and I finally visited with a friend at the end of November after we completed a big Christmas shopping spree at City Centre. We happened to be hanging out downtown on an Oilers game night, so depending on where we parked, we could have ended up paying for it. However, we lucked out by driving an extra block further where we found a spot on 99 Avenue. The payment machine didn’t indicate that it cost anything after 6:00pm. Yet, just in case, we phoned 311 to double check and they confirmed that the zone we were in fell outside of the event area. Bonus! Otherwise, if money isn’t a concern, there is parking in front of the establishment as well as an Impark lot across the street, too.

When we entered Villa Bistro, it was fairly quiet. I’d say there were, at best, a handful of other tables and a couple of bar stools occupied. I noticed the space had been freshened up with brighter walls, new modern floral art (i.e. the ubiquitous succulent), as well as updated tables and chairs. It looked lovely. The host greeted us from behind the counter and told us we could take any available table. We opted for one tucked into a nook by the windows. Once we settled in, the server brought the menus over along with glasses of water.

Veggie Panini with Fries

The food selection has an Italian leaning with entrees that include panini sandwiches or pasta bowls and appetizers of meatballs, charcuterie, and caprese skewers. My friend ended up ordering the Veggie Panini ($15). I indulged by going with the Braised Short Rib ($24). The two of us also shared an order of the Baked Brie ($15).

As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our meal, it seemed to be getting cooler inside the restaurant. I assumed it was because we were next to a window and didn’t think too much of it at first. But, right before our dishes arrived, my friend stepped out into the building’s adjoining hallway to use the bathroom and, when she returned, she confirmed that the temperature had most definitely dropped. The server eventually let us know that what we were experiencing wasn’t the norm. Apparently, the whole building was hit with a heating problem and someone was being called in to fix it as soon as possible.

Despite the cold, we powered through our dinner like the true Canadians we are. My friend was really hoping that her Veggie Panini would be reminiscent of the vegetarian toasties she had when she visited Australia. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The sandwich, consisting of goat cheese, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and red peppers in a balsamic glaze was still tasty. Her one recommendation to Villa Bistro though? The ciabatta bread was barely toasted, if at all. Paninis are supposed to be heated and pressed and this one didn’t seem to fit that description. Coming with the sandwich was a large side of fries. They looked to be freshly made and lightly seasoned.

Baked Brie

We quite enjoyed the Baked Brie. Honestly, it’s kind of a hard appetizer to screw up. This one was presented with a whole mini round of brie that was topped with fruit compote (the menu said it was blueberry, but the colour and flavour made me think it was more akin to raspberry). There were six slices of focaccia crostini to go with it. When we cut into the cheese, it was warm and nicely melted with the center oozing a little. The sweet compote paired perfectly with the rich, creamy, nutty brie.

I will give myself a pat on the back for choosing the Braised Short Rib because I think it was worth every penny. The meat was braised in-house until it was tender enough to be pulled apart with just a fork. There was only a minuscule amount of fat throughout the cut, so I was able to eat every bite of the short rib. It was also marinated very well with the flavour completely saturating the meat. Since it was so savoury, the combination of the short rib with a large helping of sweet potato puree was kind of ingenious, providing that important balance. The addition of fried parmesan Brussels sprouts that were charred and crisp on the outside just made the whole thing even better (and provided me with some actual veggies).

Braised Short Rib

By the time we polished off our plates, Villa Bistro had become a literal ice box. Our server was tucked behind the bar with a heater while she wore her parka, and my friend had also pulled on her coat. Otherwise, there was a slight chance we would have hung out a bit longer and had dessert. In those circumstances, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay. We grabbed our bills to pay and then head back out into the winter evening.

I’ll admit that the staff could have offered to compensate us for the inconvenience of eating in freezing conditions. Even though I know what happened wasn’t their fault, it’s still good business practice to acknowledge when something is wrong and to do whatever possible to rectify the situation. The host/server was super friendly and, despite the issue, she did her job pretty well. But, there wasn’t any discount on the bill or anything, which I think another restaurant would have considered. I believe the least they could have done was to offer each of us a hot beverage to keep us cozy as we ate.

Regardless, I hope that Villa Bistro’s building has since fixed the problem and that every visit hereafter will be much more comfortable. While the establishment is still coming into its own and there’s always room for improvement, they’re on the right track. With good service, a fantastic location and delicious food, they can expect to grow a wealth of regular customers.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Via Cibo

Pizza and pasta are a couple of the options to be found on Via Cibo’s menu.

Okay, so Via Cibo is a little ways out of Edmonton, but it’s close enough considering that it’s located right on Baseline Road in Sherwood Park. My visit here was thanks to another deal snapped up through Groupon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I knew that it was a franchise in the vein of Italian street food.

When my boyfriend and I arrived at the restaurant early on a Saturday night, it was fairly quiet. I noticed that the only other diners happened to be a celebratory wedding party. They were sitting at the long communal table in the center of the space and their stay was winding down. The staff attempted to busy themselves around the open kitchen. Yet, as soon as one of them saw us walk in, she greeted us and asked if we knew the process for ordering.

Being our first time to Via Cibo, I found out that the model is similar to Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria (our local success story). The idea is pretty much the same: check the menu, order and pay at the till and then the food will be brought out when it’s ready.

Via Cibo’s site says that the shops pride themselves on using local ingredients and making all items from scratch. Although I can’t actually speak to that information as a certainty, I could see that the kitchen was stocked with the small appliances needed for making things like fresh pasta. Therefore, I’m inclined to believe that at least one of those facts is true.

Since it wasn’t busy, we actually took the time to settle into our seats and peruse the menu. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the Carbonara Pasta ($13) with extra Grilled Chicken ($5) and I decided on the Via Casalinga Pizza ($15).

Preparation of the food was extremely quick as the plates were probably served to us within ten minutes of us placing our order.

Carbonara Pasta with Grilled Chicken

A bun came with the pasta even though the starch was unnecessary and the Carbonara dish itself consisted of pancetta, fresh egg, Grana Padano cheese, fresh parsley as well as plenty of added grilled chicken. What I didn’t like was that the sauce wasn’t all that creamy and the texture felt as though the sauce had curdled a bit due to overcooking of the egg; it was slightly chunky instead of being smooth. Otherwise, I thought that the flavours were there.

Via Casalinga Pizza

Of the items we tried, the pizza ended up being the better of the two. While I do think that the toppings could have been spread out across the dough more evenly, the Via Casalinga Pizza is a great value. With two types of meat ─ handmade Italian sausage and Casalinga salami ─ and fior di latte and ricotta cheeses, there’s no need to tamper with the recipe. It was savoury with a slight amount of heat and the crust was easy to fold and bite into. I only managed to eat half of the pizza and the rest was packed to go.

If Via Cibo was closer to my neighbourhood, it would probably be a good alternative to our usual eat-in or take-out options. The prices are pretty fair for the portions received. It’s just not a place that is practical for us to frequent more often though. But, it’s certainly somewhere to keep in mind should I ever find myself in need of a speedy fast-casual meal in and around Sherwood Park.