The beginning and the end work well at Nostra. You start with a greeting that is enthusiastic, service that is warm and welcoming and an atmosphere that is homey. You end, if you like amaretto in your tiramisu, with a slab of the house recipe, along with a first class cappuccino (brewed by CaffÃ© Nostra co-owner and uber-blond hostess Tina Fata).
The room itself is perfectly agreeable. They’ve taken an elderly space on Preston Street and pretty much gutted it. The result is a bright and colourful dining room where sepia photos of Italian architecture hang on cream, mustard and burgundy walls and the tiled floors are covered with cherry stained tables. There’s an upholstered bench the length of one wall that brings the disparate colours of the room together. I like the wall of iridescent glass tiles that fronts the semi open kitchen and bar. I like the marble counters. And despite the Preston Street construction that spews clouds of dust everywhere, I appreciate the fact that the picture windows are spotless.
But beyond these few comforts, there’s little else I like very much about this new restaurant. To Ottawa diners on the prowl for a good new eatery, Nostra has a ways to go.
I rarely suffer from culinary fatigue, but middling Italian-ish eateries with their photofit menus and lacklustre food made from ingredients that don’t seem top notch, and are assembled in a obvious line of shortcuts, is wearing.
For starters, five visits here have confirmed that – with the notable exception of a spicy tomato pesto soup – Nostra’s soups have no depth and little flavour, and I suspect soup base boosts the broth. The tortellini that float in the chicken stock are tough and stiff. The onion soup is dull, the parmesan cheese is pre-grated and chalky. The mussels are fishy to the point of intolerable. The Caesar is pedestrian. The grilled shrimp appetizer, with tomatoes and hot peppers on undressed greens, is agreeable enough, but only just.
The pasta special one day – grilled peppers, mushroom, zucchini, garlic, goat cheese – is strangely bland, and the cheese is forgotten. The pasta Nostra is fettucine in a cream sauce, with grilled chicken, mushrooms, and sundried tomatoes is pleasant enough, but nothing I would ever rush back for. Pasta “alla Franco” unites spaghetti with pancetta and garlic and oil, but the pasta is overcooked and a bit gummy (and tastes like it was cooked well ahead and rewarmed.)
A pounded chicken breast is tender meat, nicely cooked, but its wine and lemon sauce is medicinal tasting, and the broccoli and red pepper escorts are tired and unseasoned. Veal comes with a decent fettucine Alfredo, but the meat is underseared, underpounded and chewy.
Coffee and tiramisu restore my mood.
When the quality of the cooking matches that of the coffee and the ever-charming service I’ll be back to celebrate. In the meantime, just like the construction crews on Preston Street, Nostra has some work to do.