Maggiano’s Little Italy – Las Vegas, NV


Maggiano’s Little Italy
3200 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV
(702) 732-2550

This gambling and entertainment mecca probably has the best and worst of what America has to offer from a culinary perspective.  From absurdly priced, high end celebrity chef fronted establishments to the ultra cheap diners and fast food stands, there is no shortage of food in Las Vegas.  It all depends on what you are wiling to pay, the level of your palate, and perhaps even the level of success (or lack of) you’ve had in the casinos.

Strangely enough, I’ve dined at Maggiano’s in an entirely different city – Orlando, FL, just last year.  By chance, I came across it again on a hurried trip to the Fashion Mall to pick up something before jumping in a taxi to head to the airport and leave town.  I had some mates in tow who were also in a rushed state to do some last minute shopping for the folks back home, and so we dipped in for a late lunch.  As I wasn’t feeling overly hungry and did not want to feel bloated while sitting in an airplane for the next few hours, I chose just from the appetizers list.

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Sciue Italian Bakery – Vancouver, BC


Sciue Italian Bakery
800 W Pender St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 602-7263

A spacious and bright space benefiting from the fantastic natural lighting that floods through the large glass walls, Sciue Italian Bakery is perhaps best known for two items.  The first being the Pane Romano, described to me as a crispy flat bread/pizza like slice adorned with various Mediterranean-influenced toppings.  The other is the Paninoteca, traditional Italian sandwiches.  I’ve seen many a public transit rider carrying one of this place’s branded to-go cups of hot or cold liquids as well over the years.

Several types of the Roman-style pizza were laid out on the counter ready-made.  I wasn’t sure if they were to be re-heated slightly upon ordering but apparently mine was not.  You can essentially dictate how much you want as a serving, asking the server to cut off as small or as large a piece as you desire.  Prices were calculated by weight.  Despite the seemingly heavy layering of toppings covering the slices I chose, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they did not soak into the base layer, thus keeping the bottom intact.

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Famoso – Edmonton, AB


Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria
1417 99 St NW
Edmonton, AB
(780) 468-0000

O-toro previously wrote about this now five-location strong pizzeria based in Edmonton known as Famoso that is trumpeting some true ingredients that go into a classic Neapolitan pie.  So on my recent visit to the Alberta capital, I knew I had to give it a try myself, as there is no sign of it coming to the west coast any time soon, and I don’t have immediate plans to visit Calgary (where they have one of their five locations).

As it was on the city’s south side and thus closest to the airport that still is way too far for my liking from the city’s downtown core, the South Edmonton Common location was visited for this lunchtime meal.  [I did manage to see the location for the one downtown later during my stay].  It was quite busy for a mid-week day, although I’m sure the pending holidays had something to do with it, but the access to this shopping area wasn’t as bad as it ended up being days later (and of course for Boxing Day).  First impressions were positive.  Bright, clean, with a nice buzz about the place.  The centralized glass display that housed many of the desserts and drinks anchored the room, with the pizza cooks working in the open towards the back where I could also spot the wood burning oven.  Everything fit the “fast casual” claim they spout out in their marketing.

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Cioppino’s – San Francisco, CA


Cioppino’s
400 Jefferson Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 773-9311

Big groups require big spaces to eat.  Case in point, our party of eight needed ample space to stretch out as well as to be grouped together for a final farewell dinner in San Fran.  With many of us wanting to do some walking around just to see more than the downtown core where we’d spent most of our week, we ended up trekking along the water front and ended up at Cioppino’s for our evening meal.  This place fit the bill as we could see other large parties inside and even got a space up on the top level tired ares that seemed more suited to diners in tables of five or more.  It had a kind of mess hall feel to it, but we were not that close to the other rambunctious gatherings taking place but not too isolated so that we felt neglected, it was a perfect balance.

Apparently, this establishment has a decent history serving up hearty Italian and seafood cuisine.  I’m sure it falls into the realm of the tourist lot, given its location.  But turns out, it didn’t feel that kitschy at all and could have been even better if on a smaller scale with more focused service and attention.  There are times when ambiance and scale really do make a difference in the whole dining experience – and this was one of them.  Perhaps they were smaller when they started, but now are a full fledged, large scale operation.  A decent choice of draft beers (including the local Anchor Steam, and Big Daddy IPA) and red wines (Sonoma, Napa Valley) gave us a good way to get our appetites going further.

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La Posta Vecchia – Santa Cruz, CA


La Posta Vecchia
538 Seabright Ave.
Santa Cruz, CA 95062
(831) 457-2782

California has a long tradition of Italian immigration beginning in the 19th century.  Although New York is probably more closely associated with this wave of newcomers, in the mid-1800s California had the most Italian immigrants of any state.  In Santa Cruz and elsewhere along the coast, northern Italians quickly became very prominent in the fishing industry.  They also played important roles in developing California’s vegetable, fruit and wine industries.

Even today, one can see the imprint of this immigration (e.g. Del Monte foods, Ghirardelli chocolates).  Perhaps this explains this state’s strong ties to Italian cuisine – indeed, California cuisine in my mind is primarily rooted in Italian sensibilities with French, other European and some Asian techniques and ingredients thrown in for good measure.  Despite this, it’s only been in the last decade or so that authentic regional Italian food has been widely available.

Zibetto Espresso Bar & Manhattan Gourmet 56 – New York, NY


Zibetto Espresso Bar
1385 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY

&

Manhattan Gourmet 56
1377 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY
(212) 246-4410

A sunny 86F day in NYC with nothing to do in the morning.  A perfect setup for a casual walk in Manhattan and to grab a simple breakfast to enjoy on the benches of Central Park.  As a die-hard addict in need of a stiff cup of coffee in the morning, my first stop after bypassing those dreadful Starbucks outlets was Zibetto.  Essentially a long narrow space that couldn’t be more than eight feet wide and anchored by a sleek looking, white tiled and similarly colored marble counter-top bar accented with some metallic touches, it fit with my mental image of an Italian espresso bar.

Staffed with some slick looking, white shirted gents efficiently buzzing around behind the bar, there was already a strong lineup in place, as well as some other customers enjoying their cups of hot liquid at the tiny armrest like shelves jutting out from the walls.  Clearly, its a place to have your drink in a jiffy, no lounging around here sucking up free wi-fi or anything and generally disrupting the business need of turnover on the part of the proprietors.

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Lattanzi – New York, NY


Lattanzi Ristorante Italiano
361 West 46 Street
New York, NY
(212) 315-0980

My experiences in New York City are very limited and thus the confidence and knowledge I have about where the good places are to eat is still very much a work in progress.  So much so that I didn’t even realize that I’d stumbled upon “Restaurant Row”, a stretch of 46th street in the theater district, which is home to a compact area of assorted restaurants.   With no set plan and aimless wandering on a photo walk just to get a feel for this part of town, we came upon this area with empty stomachs and just as the sun was setting and the scene was turning dark.   It was later that I learned that there is a general consensus that this area is not considered the best of what NYC has to offer, but I did appreciate the look and feel of this strip, especially for its cozy setup and ease of access to several restaurants to eat at.  For the lazy visitor to the city, its a welcome arrangement.  And in the mood for Italian, Lattanzi appeared before us and we stepped inside.

Without a reservation, we were asked to have  a seat at the bar just down the stairs from the street side entrance, and it was about fifteen minutes before a table opened up.  Typical New York, as the other patrons enjoying a drink included a pair of talkative and flirty cougars who were pounding back martinis and clearly were inebriated, and a trio of artsy-types going over some sketches of what looked to be an interior design project.  To complete the Italian experience, the bartender was a greasy, slicked back hair fellow, with a notable Italian accent.  While waiting, it was interesting to see the clientele of this place dining inside –  some older couples and groups, obvious casually dressed tourists, and then several really attractive models and their entourages had overtaken the second floor area.

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Ristorante Avanti – Santa Cruz, CA


Ristorante Avanti
1711 Mission Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

(831) 427-0135

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.

I recall that the brilliant food writer Jonathan Gold once wrote that he’s been to Campanile in Los Angeles hundreds of times.  When I read that maybe 10 or 15 years ago, I couldn’t even fathom such a concept.  But now the combination of steady employment and living in one place for a good chunk of time has conspired to generate a small handful of places that I’ve been to so many times and with which I have such a relationship that it’s less a business and more an annex of my own home.  One of them is Ristorante Avanti, owned and run by Cindy and Paul Geise for over twenty years and still going strong.

What leads me and the many other regulars to return so often? I suspect it’s the combination of well-executed food with a menu that has both dishes that I know will be available when I’m in need of something tried, true and delicious, and a rotating list of daily specials that ensures there’s always something new and exciting to try.

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Uncle John’s – Crawfordsville, AR


Uncle John’s
5453 Main Street
Crawfordsville, AR  72327
(870) 823-5319

Heading to Memphis, there were a lot of different food experiences we wanted to try. Unfortunately, as on most trips, we had way more places to try than we had meals. For BBQ, there was a lot of debate: Central, Paynes, Interstate, Rendezvous, BBQ Shop, Neely’s.  Fried chicken lead to a similar debate. We knew what we wanted to try, and it was tough choosing one or two places to hit up. For catfish though, there was no question. We had to go to Uncle John’s.

Now, being no more knowledgeable of local geography than what i saw on a map, I had no idea that Arkansas was that close to Memphis. And while i’m not the biggest fan of checklist tourism, I do wish to visit all 50 states at some point, and this was an easy chance to knock one off. Crawfordsville AK is only roughly 30 minutes from downtown Memphis.

Uncle John’s is ostensibly an “Italian” restaurant, but they serve many Southern specialties as well. And on Friday’s, they have a catfish special that is regarded by many to be the best catfish they’ve had.

As we pulled up, everything screamed small town. There was a bench, complete with two suspicious locals who eyed us with trepidation as too many people emerged from a too small rental vehicle, quietly celebrating the end of our torturous ride. They were not impressed. I’m not sure I was that impressed either.

The exterior was a clean, nondescript building with a painting of what I can only assume is the proprietor. It was definitely a bit more modern than i was expecting.

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Pizza Prima Strada – Victoria, BC


Pizzeria Prima Strada
105 230 Cook Street
Victoria, BC
(250) 590-8595

I lamented about my city’s rather pathetic pizza scene here on Foodsophy recently and how I have to travel quite a distance to get a good slice. My quest for good pizza has taken me to Pizzeria Prima Strada in Victoria a three hour ferry trip away from Vancouver.

How I wish we had a place like this in Vancouver: a pizzeria that takes that extra step to make you a good pie.

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Prima Strada bakes their pies in an imported Italian wood-fired clay brick oven. Wood-fired ovens are slowly becoming extinct in urban areas due to fire and air quality concerns. City inspectors have instituted a virtual moratorium on their construction in Vancouver. (For example – Gastown’s Incendio, which burned down last year replaced their wood oven with a gas-fired model when they re-opened.)

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Pane e Formaggio – Vancouver, BC


Pane e Formaggio
4532 10th Ave W
Vancouver, BC
(604) 224-1623

Artisan breads and specialty cheeses are a big deal here in Vancouver.  Plenty of competition for this segment of the retail and dine-in scene, with new ones seemingly popping up from time to time throughout the city.  Personally, I try to frequent these shops on weekend mornings when I have more free time to browse around, explore all the shelves and showcases and try to gain some knowledge from the folks behind the counter about what they create and sell.  I love hearing the passion they have for their product and how genuinely interested they are in sharing their knowledge and teaching others about things such as cheeses, which can be overwhelming at times given how many varieties are out there…

Located on the far west end of 10th Avenue towards the entrance of the UBC campus, Pane e Formaggio has been around since the start of this decade and has carved a niche as a popular Saturday breakfast/brunch spot for the residents of West Point Grey.  Despite the narrow, bowling alley-like layout, the bright airiness of the space and the fine touches like the dark wooden flooring, high ceilings, and European-inspired tables and chairs, makes this a very inviting and comfortable place to spend your weekend mornings.  It’s usually pretty tough getting one of the available tables however, so take-out is also available.

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Campagnolo – Vancouver, BC


Campagnolo
1020 Main St.
Vancouver, BC
604-484-6018

Campagnolo on Urbanspoon

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I have been sitting on this report now for a few weeks. I’m not really sure why I hesitated to publish it. It could be that it sort of broke a minor rule I have of only reporting on smaller, more under the radar sort of places. Campagnolo does not fit this mold for sure. It had received a lot of good publicity from Vancouver’s food press…rightly so. It is a good restaurant that has a lot going for it.

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Campagnolo is operated by the group who run Fuel over on the West side of the city. Fuel is a great restaurant with the kind of ethic that this area of the world is known: organic, locally sourced ingredients, “nose to tail” philosophy, talented cooks. Campagnolo is much the same. As a matter of fact, the kitchen had a deer hanging in it getting ready to be prepped “nose to tail” (from primal cuts of meat all the way to the nasty bits that end up in their pate and cured sausages.) The group has also started up a small retail/in-house curing operation cleverly called “The Cure” which will supply Fuel, Campagnolo, and retail.

Campagnolo attempts to serve “rustic” Italian food from the countryside of Peidmont and Emiglia-Romagna. I have a positive bias towards rustic and homey food so I was very interested to see how Campagnolo attempts this style of presentation.

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My friend and I started with the Cecci – deep fried chickpeas that have the same kind of addicting quality as good peanuts. The outer skin had a pleasing papery crispness which acted as a counterpoint to the creaminess of the chickpea. The skin was somewhat dark and caramelized…perhaps they pre-marinated it with a sweet concoction prior to deep frying it.

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The next dish was their Octopus Salad. It wasn’t exemplary as the Octopus itself tasted strongly fishy. It’s supposed to taste slightly fishy, but this was a bit much…and for comparison, I have had similar dishes elsewhere were the octopus tasted much more refined and subtle.

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The we moved on to the salumi platter consisting of pate and cured sausages – all house made of course. This cold plate was decent enough…nothing spectacular and certainly nothing that I wouldn’t be able to source right in my neighbourhood. Perhaps they are still in the process of experimenting and improving their recipes and techniques at The Cure, but so far, the salumi fails to impress. Oddly, it didn’t come with the obligatory bread. I did ask for some at an extra cost…but it is an odd choice on their part to not have included it. The pate certainly would not have worked at all without bread.

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The next dish was their tagliarini with pork ragu. The noodles where thin and perfectly cooked…the ragu was nicely prepared and seasoned. The shreds of pork were very tender – perhaps a bit past where it should have been because I felt it lacked ‘bite’ in the texture.

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We finished with their Olive Oil cake…this was the most pleasing part of the meal. I’m always surprised how well Olive Oil works as a dessert ingredient – it imparts a floral, fruitiness to this dish. It worked very well with the semolina cake base, vanilla cream and the caramelized pear.

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Overall, a fine meal. Campagnolo is a very nice addition to the city’s Casual Fine Dining scene – and it certainly is a very nice, but oddly juxtaposed addition to this very sketchy underbelly of a neighbourhood. It is also refreshing to see some real Regional Italian food instead of the usual generic Italian I normally see. Yet, a few weeks after dining there, I still feel unexcited about this place (quite unlike the feelings I have about Campagnolo’s sister restaurant, Fuel). As I wrote this report, I started to understand. Perhaps its limited and focused menu needs no more exploration on my part – and sampling a few dishes was enough for me to say “I get it.” Perhaps it didn’t feel quite “rustic” enough…it felt too fine? Maybe Italian food just doesn’t excite me as much as other cuisines?

The food was good, the service was excellent, the space was interesting, but I have no real compulsion to return.

Campagnolo on Urbanspoon

Presto Cucina – Vancouver, BC


Presto Cucina
2272 W 4th Ave
Vancouver, BC
(604) 731 7222

I love Italian cuisine, but I am often torn when it comes to dining out.  Mainly because it usually involves the see saw battle between a) unpretentious, affordable, in a casual environment but poor to average tasting; and b) fantastic recipes, skilled preparation and beautiful presentation though more expensive and in much more formal settings.  So I was cautiously optimistic when I received a friend’s suggestion one night when I was looking for a delicious but reasonably priced pasta/pizza dine-in option in Kitsilano, after spending the previous ten days in Hong Kong and wanting to avoid anything Cantonese.

On first glance, the outside of Presto Cucina is nothing spectacular, as it occupies a space in one of the many generic buildings along W 4th Avenue. A sandwich board with take-out menus stood upright just outside the front entrance, and taking a glance inside, I was pleased to see it looked fairly busy.  Stepping inside is where some confusion arose, as I could see servers in the back of the room, but they could obviously not see us.  After five minutes of waiting by the door, during which time I saw two servers walk around in the dining space and they could have clearly seen us, but continued back to the open kitchen area at the back.  Spotting a booth along one wall, albeit still dirty and not cleared, we decided to move to it in the hope that would finally grab their attention.  Not so.  Another five minutes later I was finally able to flag a person down, who then hurried back to the kitchen again, and then another server came by and lazily wiped down the table and disappeared again.  I was beginning to wonder if there was a batton they were handing off to each other and I was part of some magic act with all the vanishing going on.

After finally getting a chance to give our order – deciding to share one of the special menu pizzas ($10.99), with Tomato and Bocconcini; as well as a Shrimp Pesto Penne ($15.99) – I finally got a chance to fully scan the room.  Brightly lit and clean, the customers on this night seemed to be mainly couples, more friends having a meal rather than dates.  When the food did arrive, I was fairly disappointed in the bland tasting penne.  The pasta itself was cooked al dente which was fine, but it just had no flavor, and required a dose of table salt and pepper to try and improve it somewhat.  The shrimp, as you often find in casual pasta joints like this, was a bit tough and overcooked.  The accompanying piece of garlic toast felt stale, either that or severely overtoasted, with the sharp edges easily able to do some damage to the vulnerable parts of your mouth.  The pizza was slightly better, but at the same time simply just okay  Nothing horrible about the flavor of it (which was not skimpy on the ingredients), though I was torn over the lump of pesto that appeared in the centre of the dish, as it was really dredged in oil and had my doubts of its freshness.

Back to the service, clearly, the two wait staff were overmatched.  Every time they came by to deliver drinks, food, enquire how things were (once), and even when they brought the final cheque, it was as if they were on permanent drive-by.  Drop and go, is how I would describe it… a service of blurs.  For what it is, Presto Cucina (a four restaurant chain with other outlets in West Vancouver, White Rock and Abbotsford) does what it advertises itself to be – Italian casual.  Frankly the food though could be found in just about any family restaurant serving up pizza and pasta, and probably at a more reasonable price.  Amid all the Italian options in the city, I think Presto Cucina could do more to help itself succeed in this market, beginning with hiring of more service staff.  I really wish I could find a homey, rustic Italian kitchen that serves us authentic, flavorful dishes at wallet-friendly prices in the west side.  If anyone has any suggestions, I would be open to hearing of them and giving them a try.

Presto Cucina (Kitsilano) on Urbanspoon

Little Italy Cafe – Calgary, AB


Little Italy Cafe
1935 – 27 Avenue NE
Calgary, AB T2E 7E4
(403) 291-5654
Open 9:00am-4:00pm-ish, M-F; Closed Sat, Sun and Holidays

September 2008 re-visit post here

Original post below:

If you’ve ever worked in an industrial park, you can attest to how difficult it is to find good food. Small sandwich shops, offering the always odd assortment of sandwiches, soup (usually Wonton!), french fries, samosas, and burgers, dot the landscape – trying to capture as much of the local pedestrian traffic as possible. Every once in a while though, you come across a good find that is worth patronizing. Little Italy Cafe is one of these finds.

Little Italy Cafe is not really located in an industrial park – but on a commuter road sandwiched between several industrial parks in NE Calgary. Fancy doesnt work here. Good solid, gut warming meals are the order of the day. They focus on some standard Italian sandwiches, cold cuts, meatballs, and veal cutlet, as well as a few daily hot specials. A baked pasta, a regular pasta, and often times sausage, chicken, or other assorted meat. And they do so at an extremely affordable price.


The restaurant is owned by the affable Piero Perrotta – an extremely friendly, outgoing Italian gentleman who is a bit forgetful. So the ladies in the kitchen always complain about anyway, as they yell at him to “fix this order, pick up this order, hurry this up!”. Service is quite slow, typically as he takes a minute out of his day to chat with each customer. However, i kind of like it. It reminds me a bit of Italy – a stark contrast of high speed, while maintaining priority for things that matter, like socialization.

The food itself is made by a few Noni’s in the back. The kind i wish still made lunch for me every day. The sandwiches, which are ok, are not what i would recommend here.  The bread, after all, is that tasteless 12″ roll. Pasta – in massive quantities, is the order of the day. At $7.95, you get a very large serving of whatever pasta they decided to make that day. Usually there is a baked, and a regular dried pasta topped with gravy, and some form of meat. My favorite are their meatballs – wonderful, large, hand-rolled meatballs that are the typical Italian soft and crumbly consistency. Throw some roasted peppers on there, some “gun powder” chili flakes, and you have a tasty. very filling homemade meal. Things are not the perfect al dente, but it doesn’t matter. My mom never got pasta a perfect al dente either.  

Little Italy Cafe is not fine dining. No one will mistake this for Capo, Il Sogno, or other high end Italian restaurants in Calgary that do “fine” Italian Cuisine. What Little Italy does well is comfort food – homestyle Italian cooking. The kind your Noni would make – if you were Italian, and you had a Noni. And when your other choices are another grilled cheese and Wonton soup combo, it is, on many a day, comforting indeed.

Little Italy Cafe on Urbanspoon