Edmonton Restaurant Review: Panini’s Italian Cucina

Pasta comes piping hot in foil pans.

I’ve never once set foot into the physical space of Panini’s Italian Cucina. However, I’ve now ordered their food through SkipTheDishes enough that I feel I can justify writing this review.

My co-workers were interested in having lunch delivered one day, so we started to peruse the options on the app. I decided to search based on current restaurant ratings and fees. Panini’s Italian Cucina came right to the very top of the list. Not only do they offer free delivery with purchases of $20 or more, they also had a Skip rating of 9.9 out of 10. It was either going to be them or the Italian Centre Shop. What really pushed Panini’s over the edge was the extent of their options.

That initial order included a Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini ($12) for me, and a Deluxe Calzone ($16), Ciambella Doughnut Balls ($6), and a Build Your Own Pasta ($4.75) for my friends.

Pastas are packaged in large round foil pans. The Build Your Own pasta is simply a base of either spaghetti, fettuccine or penne with their signature tomato sauce. There were no additional toppings or upgrades, hence the low cost. Supposedly, it’s meant to feed one person, yet the portions are quite sizeable. The Deluxe Calzone was also big, but still devoured by my co-worker in one sitting. Since she didn’t have room for dessert, she shared her doughnuts with me. At first, when I picked up a ball, I thought the outside was a bit too firm. Nevertheless, it gave way to a soft, springy center, and it was delicious when dipped into the container of Nutella that came on the side.

Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini

The original version of the sandwich I chose comes stacked with prosciutto, bocconcini, artichokes, spinach, and tomatoes. What I love about Panini’s is that there’s an opportunity to customize for free, so I opted to swap out the latter two toppings for arugula and sun-dried tomatoes. I even added roasted red peppers as up to four veggies can be selected. Condiments of pesto mayo and lemon garlic mayo were bonuses. All of this was pressed between a hearty whole wheat bread. The sandwiches are actually perfect to be split into two separate light lunches. I too finished off my panini, eating the whole thing in one go. They don’t skimp on the ingredients. Everything was fresh, and the bread was buttered and toasted to perfection, giving it a good bite.

Subsequent deliveries have yielded us more pastas and sandwiches: Spaghetti & Meatballs ($13.25), Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo ($11.50), Penne Alla Boscaiola ($12.75), and Montreal Smoked Beef Panini ($12).

Penne Alla Boscaiola

As my friend noted, the Spaghetti & Meatballs — signature tomato sauce with two large beef and pork balls — was able to provide her with sustenance for three days straight, making their dishes a fantastic value. Even my Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo was hefty and split into a few meals. The sauce was creamy and all of the pasta was well-coated. The grilled chicken had ample flavour. This only thing is this option is not the healthiest by any means. It’s not as noticeable if eaten immediately after it’s made, but, rewarmed, the paper plate I had put my pasta on was just drenched in an abundance of oil that soaked through. Yikes! The latest pasta I tried was the Penne Alla Boscaiola. It consists of a rosé sauce. Basically this is the best of both worlds since it marries a traditional tomato sauce with white cream sauce, and I found this to be lighter than the alfredo. Copious thin slices of spicy Italian sausage had been placed into the pasta with mushrooms and peas dotting the pan as well. Again, there was plenty to spread this out over a few lunches.

Montreal Smoked Beef Panini

As far as Montreal Smoked Beef sandwiches go, this one hits the spot. It’s not outrageously stuffed with meat like the ones sold at true Montreal delis, but there’s just the right amount of beef. This one is supposed to be served with mozzarella, arugula, pickled eggplant, spicy pepper mayo, and mustard. I pretty much keep it as is. The only things I add are artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. The smokiness of the meat plays off the acidity and bitterness of the veggies while the sauces bring in a savoury-sweet combo and a little spice.

What I like most is that it never seems to take too long to get our food from Panini’s Italian Cucina. Despite the lunch rushes, we’ve received better service from them being fifteen blocks away on Jasper Avenue than from a restaurant that was literally a few blocks down the road. Everything I’ve had the chance to try from Panini’s has been better than expected, and I often find myself thinking about my next Panini’s lunch. When a single dish has the ability to cover multiple meals at such an affordable price, it’s a winner in my books.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

The open kitchen of Buco Windermere is surrounded by bar seating.

Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group expanded in mid-2015 with Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar in St. Albert. While I’ve never visited that location, a friend of mine is the executive chef at the newer Epcor Tower spot in downtown Edmonton. It’s just blocks away from Rogers Place. For me, the closest and most convenient is in Windermere.

My fiancé and I recently popped in to check it out. We spent an entire $65 OpenTable dining cheque on an indulgent Saturday afternoon lupper (lunch-dinner). The reason why we chose to go at that time is because they offer Social Hour specials daily from 2pm to 5pm and 9pm to close.

It’s nice and airy inside with an industrial feel.

Even in the middle of the day, there were a decent number of guests seated in both the industrial style lounge and dining room. However, there were just a few staff on hand, so service was a little slower than it should have been. It was worth it though, and it kind of forced us to sit there and enjoy our meal rather than quickly rushing through it all.

My Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail at the front and the featured Shock Top draft at the back.

To start, my significant other opted to go for their feature draft. At $5 for 12 oz. it was reasonable (regularly $7.50). That day’s option was Shock Top, so nothing too special. I chose to try their Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail ($5 for Social Hour, usually $9.50) — peach grappa, peach purée, white tea, and peach infused whipped cream. Our server said it took longer to make it because they had an issue with the whipped cream dispenser. That’s no big deal. I was more annoyed with the fact that it was so messy. The drink was filled so high that it was spilling down the sides of the glass and I got whipped cream all over my hands and the table. They never bothered to wipe that down or offered to bring extra napkins or anything. Other than that, I could have done without so much ice. The cocktail comes in a short glass, so the more cubes there are, the less drink there is, and I finished it really quickly.

For sustenance, we shared a Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 people ($12, typically $22), a Carne pizza, and a Fig Prosciutto pizza ($12 each, outside of Social Hour it’s $21). This was a ton of food and could easily have fed another couple.

Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 People

The cheese and charcuterie board was brought out as a starter, so we were able to snack on that first. This actually wowed us because we weren’t expecting the smaller size to be such an extensive spread. I think the only constructive feedback we have about this item is that it needs to come with more slices of bread. There were only two pieces per person. It meant the ratio of bread to cheese and meat was off, and it’d be nice to have more bread to balance everything out. Otherwise, the variety of cheese included a mix of both hard and soft textures and a range of mild to pungent flavours. The meats were also great. They stuck to the more familiar cured meats like prosciutto and salami, which ensures everything will be eaten when it comes to a chef’s choice type of situation.

For the pizzas, we were eventually asked if we were ready to have them fired up. We felt like we’d had enough of the board, so we said yes. It didn’t take too long for them to bake in their oven and they came out piping hot. The Carne is a pie layered with red sauce, meat, meat, and more meat. The toppings included short rib, Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for the protein. Smoked caciocavallo and fior di latte filled the cheese quotient. This pizza was everything a meat lover could want as there was just so much of it and it was incredibly savoury. On the ligher side of scale, our Fig Prosciutto pizza is made without tomato sauce. It consisted of fontina cheese, fig jam, prosciutto, and balsamic drizzle. It has that salty-sweet combo that is appealing to a lot of palates. The crusts were easy to fold, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, and a little chewy in the middle.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Half of our meal was packed up to go as there was no way we could finish it all at once. But, we did save some room for dessert. In the end, we shared a slice of the beautifully presented Raspberry Ricotta Cake ($9). It was a bit more crumbly than I thought it should be despite the moistness of the ricotta and vanilla based cake. Still, the raspberry coulis, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream did a good job of tying everything together.

We’ll definitely have to go back again soon to sample more items. Nevertheless, judging by what we’ve eaten there so far, overall, Buco Pizzeria’s menu is up to snuff. Where they can certainly use improvements is with the servers and management. They seemed kind of oblivious to the fact that they had guests. They were more preoccupied with setting up the restaurant for the evening and ignored current patrons unless they were blatantly waved at. It shouldn’t be a requirement to make full on eye contact with a staff member in order to get any service. They need to be trained to be more attentive. Hopefully, I’ll see changes with respect to that next time I’m there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rebel Food and Drink

Our spread at Rebel Food and Drink.

For most of my life, I lived in the Edmonton neighbourhood of Glenora. Down the road, on 142 Street, sat a restaurant called Piccolino Bistro. It was a favourite among locals, but I never understood the hype after visiting a couple of times. Then, mired in health code violations, the restaurant shuttered temporarily in 2016 to resolve those issues. Yet, even after the fixes, the establishment didn’t stay open much longer.

Their fun accent wall.

Last year, in swooped Century Hospitality Group (CHG). Known for several popular eateries around the city, they worked with former Piccolino co-owner, Lino Rago, to relaunch the space into something more modern. By late-November or early-December, Rebel Food and Drink was born.

In May, I dropped by with my family on a weekday evening to catch their Anarchy Hour (Happy Hour) specials. Monday to Friday, from 3pm to 6pm, and, again, from 7pm to close, on Sunday, premium well drinks, Rebel Lager, and select house wines are just $5. Shares and pizzas are $10 per plate.

Warm beer in mason jars.

My companions were solely concerned with hockey and beer, so they both ordered the Rebel Lager. Oddly enough, the establishment didn’t pour the sleeves of alcohol into regular glasses. The first round arrived in mason jars and the liquid wasn’t even cold. It seemed counter intuitive to sip on a lukewarm beverage, especially on one of the hottest days we’d had of late.

Since no one else was interested in looking at the menu, I took the liberty of choosing a few of the $10 items: Breakfast Pizza, Sausage Me Pizza, Macho Nacho Perogies, and Prawns & Peaches.

Breakfast Pizza

As far as the pizzas go, they’re really similar to what you’d find at their sister restaurant, The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar. The crust is relatively thin with a crisp exterior and chewy interior. It’s foldable and well-topped. On the night of, it was unanimously decided that the Breakfast Pizza — marinara sauce, bacon, sausage, tater tots, sunny side up egg, and green onions — was the winner between the two we chose. Their version of bacon was really baked prosciutto, so it had a smokiness to it. The broken yolk from the egg gave it a richness, and the flavours of each of the ingredients married together brilliantly.

Sausage Me Pizza

On the other hand, the Sausage Me Pizza — marinara sauce, fennel sausage, baby kale, mozzarella, chilis — lacked meat; it was difficult to discern any sausage was there. An overabundance of kale led to a watered down texture, too. Surprisingly though, the leftover slice I ate the following day was really good. In fact, I liked it more than the final piece of breakfast pizza. Go figure.

Macho Nacho Perogies

When the Macho Nacho Perogies arrived, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision. They proved me wrong as they turned out to be great. Puffy pan-fried potato dumplings were smothered in a smoked gouda cheese sauce (the pièce de résistance), and then covered with crumbled nacho chips, tomatoes and green onions. They were almost addictive, and the sauce was perfect for dipping leftover pizza crust.

Prawns & Peaches

By far the best selection of the evening was the Prawns & Peaches. Sadly, there were only five prawns to split between three people. Still, the single one I had was wonderful. Lightly battered and fried until crisp, the honey prawns were then served with spicy garlic aioli and grilled sweet peaches. I’m the only one that ate the peaches, and I’m glad I did because they almost stole the show. Executive chef Tony Le definitely outdid himself with this take on a classic Chinese restaurant dish.

The interior is beautifully designed.

On the whole, the food was certainly decent for the price, but the service could use a little work. It started out attentive. However, by the end of our meal, our server was hard to come by. She didn’t bother to offer us a dessert menu, and she stopped refilling our drinks. A few of the seats are a tad too close to one another as well. Otherwise, the tables themselves are a good size (unlike the tiny ones at Hart’s Table & Bar, also owned by CHG, that don’t fit anything). What we did appreciate is that the stylish eatery is nearby my parent’s house, making it an ideal walkable location. They also have a wall that opens wide to allow outside air to flow in, which was super important in what felt like an non-air conditioned space.

Being that Rebel Food and Drink is only about seven months old, I understand that there will be growing pains. Hopefully, they can work them all out soon as I want to see this place succeed in becoming an integrated part of the Parkview and Crestwood neighbourhoods. Areas like this deserve to have their own local joints, and this can easily become one of them.

The neighbourhood seems to have embraced Rebel.

UPDATE June 23

I wrote the above earlier and preset the post. Since then, I’ve actually been to Rebel Food and Drink at least a handful of times. My Dad loves it there. I’m sure it’s because of the deals, as well as the proximity to home. Whatever the reason, I’ve been enough times now to expand on what I already mentioned above.

With each visit, we’ve sampled a few more dishes from the menu, including: The Penelope pizza, Lamb Lollipops, Mussels, Rebel Chz Brgr, Stk + Egg Carpaccio, and How We Rock & Roll lobster rolls. All of these, minus the burger, are part of their happy hour specials.

The Penelope Pizza

Beginning with The Penelope pizza, I’d have to say that it’s not really my top pick. I do love smoked salmon, and this one comes from the local Sgambaros. Yet, I feel as though the toppings are a lot lighter when it comes to this pie versus the others we’ve tried so far. I also find that they heavily powder the bottom of their pizzas with flour to keep the dough from sticking, and that leaves hands severely caked while eating.

Lamb Lollipops

Lamb isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s to mine and my family. While I was excited to try the Lamb Lollipops, they weren’t ideally prepared. Thankfully, the meat was still succulent. My issue is more with the way it’s cooked. They crust the lamb in panko breading and fry the lamb chops until they’re supposed to be crispy. The problem is the lamb chops end up sitting in this garlic herb oil or juice and, by the time it gets to the table, it ends up softening the breading too much. Plus, the frying makes it greasier, and I’d much prefer it without that slick sensation.

In contrast, the PEI Mussels — both in White Wine or Marinara sauce — are delicious. The bowls come filled to the brim with open-shelled mollusks (very few stayed closed) drenched in sauce. Grilled lemon can be spritzed on top and two big slices of garlic baguettes are provided to help sop up what remains. It’s enough to be considered a full meal for one or to be shared among a group.

On one occasion, my fiancé was craving a burger and opted to go for the Rebel Chz Brgr ($17) with added bacon ($1.50). Made with ground in-house chuck patties (double-stacked) and served with blanched fries, he couldn’t praise it enough. I think it’s within the list of best burgers he has ever had. I managed to get a couple of bites in, and I can agree that it hits the spot. It’s obvious the meat is fresh. They keep each patty thin, so that they cook through evenly and get a nice char on the grill. It reminded him of something from a mom and pop diner where there’s a nostalgia in terms of quality.

Stk + Egg Carpaccio

I’m a big fan of Carpaccio. Most eateries don’t serve it with any egg as that seems relegated more for tartare. But, the Stk + Egg Carpaccio at Rebel is pretty good. They thinly slice wagyu eye of round to create the base of the dish. It’s then brushed with pickled mustard seed and laid with a fried sunny side egg. An abundance of wild arugula and buttered toast points circled the dish. The meat wasn’t quite as tender as I hoped, coming across a little chewier than I’d like. Nevertheless, it was more than edible and the flavours and textures worked overall.

How We Rock & Roll Lobster Rolls

The How We Rock & Roll lobster rolls have been Maritimer approved by my fiancé, and it’s a big deal considering he’s very picky about his seafood. This is also probably one of my fave appetizers from Rebel. I enjoyed it so much that I ordered a plate of three all to myself during our last meal there. Mini sourdough loafs are buttered and grilled on the outside and then slit in the middle to be stuffed with a mix of rock lobster and garlic mayo. Green onions are used to garnish the miniature rolls. I’m not sure what else goes into the recipe, but we definitely noticed a kick of heat similar to Sriracha. Whatever it is, we recommend they keep doing it.

Having been to Rebel Food and Drink multiple times now, I will say that I was pleased to see that the service received on busy Sunday nights (even over a long weekend) was actually better than a quiet Monday evening. Maybe we were just there on a bad day the first time. All I know is that the staff were way more on the ball with a full house, which improved my perception a bit. The food also continues to impress. Fingers crossed it stays this way.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bottega 104

Bottega 104 is all about Italian.

Situated on the 104 Street Promenade, between Jasper and 102 Avenues, sits Bottega 104. The Italian eatery is less than a year old. Nonetheless, it seems to have become a favourite in the downtown neighbourhood. When I arrived after work to meet a friend, patrons were starting to trickle in. By the time the two of us left, the venue was jam packed full of people.

My reservation, booked through the OpenTable app, yielded us a table towards the far back corner of the restaurant. It allowed me a bit of a view of the open kitchen as well as perfect sightlines of the long bar and the rest of the establishment. Honestly though, it’s a tight space.

The bar has a lovely design.

Sure, the details of the design scheme and the lighting added to the ambience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly comfortable. It was really cramped. When I was taken to our seats, I was the first to get there, so I decided to sit on the booth side. I had to squeeze myself between the two tables, sucking in my chest, to fit through. Moreover, I narrowly avoided knocking down the wine glasses of the guests next to us. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the close quarters experienced in restaurants on trips to New York City. However, let’s face it. This is Edmonton. People aren’t used to it being like this, and I can’t imagine others love feeling as if they’re sitting on each others’ laps either.

Room aside, I narrowly missed Bottega’s Prohibition Hour specials on their cocktails. From 2pm to 5pm, $13 two-ounce cocktails are marked down to $7 each, which is a hefty savings. Once I had settled in, I may have been able to quickly select something. Yet, our server was gone as soon she dropped off the menus, and she didn’t bother to come back until my friend showed up fifteen minutes later. Ultimately, we both chose water over any other beverage.

Ready to share dishes, family style.

When we did get to place our order, we opted to share a couple of the items: Spaghetti Carbonara Pasta ($21) and Prosciutto Pear Pizza ($21). As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our food, the server came back with side plates and pasta tongs, so we could more easily divide the dishes family style. The food was decent. Although, personally, I found it to be either too salty (pasta) or too bland (pizza).

Spaghetti Carbonara

The Spaghetti Carbonara was made with a “delicate” cream sauce, smoked pancetta, and egg. It was true that the sauce was creamy; unlike other plates of carbonara I’ve eaten, the egg avoided curdling. There was great potential as seen with the extra crispy pieces of pancetta, too. Bottega also didn’t skimp on the amount of protein. The problem was that it became very repetitive on the palate with only the pork and sauce to turn to. They had essentially become one and the same in terms of flavour. I realize that carbonara is not anything fancy; nevertheless, something is needed to help cut through the dish to awaken the taste buds.

Prosciutto Pear Pizza

As for the pizza, I was expecting more. The dough was topped with prosciutto, mozza, gouda, cherry tomatoes, sliced pear, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze. It’s a combination that sounds like it’d be amazing. Each inch of the pizza was covered with one of those ingredients, but there was very little stacking. Therefore, each bite provided just a small glimpse of what it could have been. There wasn’t a whole lot of balance between the saltiness of the cured meat and cheeses, the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the walnuts, or the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic drizzle. Additionally, the pizza cooled off fast, taking away the gooiness that any of the melted cheese may have had.

Zeppoli

Our night concluded with us splitting the Zeppoli ($9) for dessert. Bottega lists it as Italian street food. Typically, they come in the form of fried dough balls covered in some sort of sauce or a dusting of sugar and spice. They’re kind of like the mini doughnuts available at all of our annual festivals. When they were presented to us, I was surprised at the portions (definitely enough for two to three diners) as well as the shape of the Zeppoli. Instead of puffy balls, they were sticks of dough in the vein of churros, yet chewier. Sprinkles of icing sugar decorated the zeppoli along with zigzags of Nutella ganache. Again, this was underwhelming. Had the menu not mentioned Nutella, I wouldn’t have guessed there was supposed to be any hazelnut taste to this. It came across as a basic chocolate sauce.

In the end, this wasn’t what I was hoping for. The service, once both of us were there, was passable. The food was edible, but nothing to write home about. Mostly, it was too crowded and noisy. I mean, the din from everyone conversing makes it loud enough as it is. So, my recommendation is that they take out a table or two and lower the music a bit. I think visitors would appreciate it more than they know. Ultimately, the menu is their bread and butter though. If I’m to return and spend my hard earned money there, that’s where they need to see some major improvements.

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.