With a few fresh ingredients – like herbs, tomatoes, cheese and noodles so fresh they need only a brief dip in hot water to be perfectly cooked – pasta or rice dishes can be elevated to a new plane of existence, taking eaters along for the ride.
Here in Edmonton, there are plenty of restaurants where carb lovers can find their nirvana. Chefs are mastering those subtle nuances that can take a dish from good to great. This is food that, for the most part, you can’t get at home – unless your home also includes a wildly inventive Italian nonna. But trust us, these dishes make it worth leaving the house.
Spicy Marsala Pasta
at Cafe Amore Bistro
My mom used to say: If a dish of food is particularly good, it’ll make your nose run. This rule was primarily applied to soups. But, if it also rings true for other foods, then the Spicy Marsala pasta at Cafe Amore Bistro must be pretty good.
Don’t be scared off by the habanero cream sauce. The spice certainly makes its presence known throughout this dish, but it’s not going to burn your face off. In fact, the richness of the cream and the sweetness of the Marsala wine help the heat dissipate off your tongue rather quickly. Still, you probably won’t need to add any of the red pepper flakes that accompany the entrees to the table.
Fair warning, though: The portions at Cafe Amore are generous, to say the least. If you go, bring a big appetite with you, or a friend who likes spicy food as much as you do – and a handful of tissues for when your nose starts running. –Glenn Cook
If you’re a carnivore, you likely won’t expect Cibo Bistro – the Italian fine dining establishment tucked away in Oliver Square – to be your go-to dinner stop. But there’s enough down-home flavour infusion to satisfy even the most uninitiated. Case in point: The garganelli.
The simple pasta dish, with a ragu Bolognese (meat sauce), is as familiar to the palate as any Italian dish can be. But the kicker is that, unlike most garganelli plates that more commonly feature a duck ragu, this dish has a decidedly wilder, meatier edge. Wild boar is the protein of choice in this slow simmered sauce and, like how bacon makes any burger better, this wild boar does the pasta-dish equivalent.
The garganelli noodles, coated in basil oil, are the perfect vehicle for the succulent sauce. Add to that the fully formed, sharp and nutty addition of two-year-aged Parmesan cheese, and you get a double-down on savoury – perfect for the meat-lover in you. –Cory Haller
Wildflower places its Three Mushroom Ravioli dish on the “lighter fare” side of its menu. Don’t be fooled, though; it’s not a trivial top-of-the menu item. It’s truly a filling and satisfying dish.
The pillows of ravioli sit atop a bed of asparagus and they’re covered in a brown, earthy sauce that emphasizes truffles and pepper. Shavings of fonduta cheese act as a creamy counterpoint. Inside the ravioli, you’ll find a stuffing made from a mixture of mushrooms. It’s simple, classic and absolutely worth skipping a meat dish to enjoy – even if going with a meatless main is against my carnivore instincts.
Now, I’m a mushroom lover – I can still look back on my childhood and recall how I used to think of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup as a lunchtime treat. So, feeding me a three-mushroom ravioli is like preaching to a choir.
But, if you’re hesitant about mushroom dishes and expecting the earthiness to be overpowering, you’ll be surprised how much the rich sauce balances the meal with – get this – an almost meaty feel.-Steven Sandor
Fra diavolo is a classic Italian sauce, generally tomato-based and hot enough to make your eyes water. Il Pasticcio offers a welcome and innovative twist on the devilish standard with its Fusilli Diavola, but be warned – you’d better bring a hearty appetite if you’re opting for this one.
The fusilli is coated in a decadent cayenne Alfredo sauce and, while it may seem like an odd combination, the cayenne pepper adds the perfect amount of heat to counteract the richness of the Alfredo.
Then, of course, come the proteins. The dish comes with sauted chicken, a staple of Alfredo dishes. There’s also a sprinkling of bite-sized baby lobster, the ideal solution for seafood lovers who are less than skilled at cracking open crustaceans.
It is already over the top, but when the server asks if you’d like any red pepper flakes or parmigiano sprinkled atop the dish, you might as well say yes.
Though not a pasta, a good risotto is the true barometer of any Italian restaurant’s pedigree. If the arborio or carnaroli (the shorter, fatter rice more commonly used for the dish) is not cooked to a perfect al dente, then the effort is wasted. If the onion or chicken stock isn’t seasoned just right, why bother? And when a restaurant experiments with this classic recipe, colour me cautious.
So as the curry chicken risotto arrived at my table at Zenari’s, the Italian eatery located on the main floor of Manulife Place, I was cautiously optimistic. After all, it has a reputation for a perfect risotto, but adding curry and chicken breast? It’s almost sacrilege.
Luckily, Zenari’s did not disappoint. The rice? Perfect. The chicken? A soft and succulent breast, sliced thinly and distributed throughout the dish. The curry? Not too spicy. Mixed with the buttery risotto, it took on a flavour resembling butter chicken, which (in my book) is a win. –Cory Haller