Caffe Ventuno is the dining room attached to Il Negozio Nicastro, the West Wellington deli and cheese shop. Open since 2004, ther e have been times of real strength in this Italian kitchen — chefs Michael Cummings (formerly of Cafe Zingaro) and a bit later Michael Sobcov (late of Juniper) gave Ventuno pretty tasty beginnings. But there have been troubled years too. Unpredictable years. Chefs have come and gone, and quality of food has as well. So it’s been a little restaurant that’s struggled with consistency over its seven years.
What has been steady is the look. The wall of sawed-off birch trunks has always been a nifty feature here. And I like the lime glow at the bar, the long bench seating, the big windows that bring in the light and the street.
What I don’t like — and never have — is the evening view of the deli. I’ve said it before: this dining room needs to do a better job of blocking the store, its shelves of product and its too-bright spotlights. At my latest visit, as I was forking magnificent pork into my mouth (slow roasted with rosemary, thyme and garlic) and squinting at the unwelcome glare in my eyes, inside my head I was busy hanging a privacy curtain. And I was lighting candles on these bare tables — anything to give this little room its own glow. We even spent one evening with coat-wrapped legs, begging for the door to be kept shut and the heat cranked up.
The other element that’s all over the map at Ventuno is the service. It needs to be much better trained. At my last visit, we wait and wait for a greeting. A young man is overwhelmed and unsupported, his backup server oblivious. I wait for a table at the bar one night, and wait too for the servers to stop yakking with each other long enough to offer me a glass of water.
But the food is showing great promise.
Given it’s attached to one of the city’s best delis, the platters “dalla salumeria” are the way to begin. On a long board, with wonderful bread, is a spread of cured and smoked meats, cheeses of varying temperaments, spiced olives, and soft fruit in superb condition. One could almost make a meal of the board and the bread.
They have a solid Caesar here, and the ventuno salad is a delicious assembly of crunch and soft, rich and tart, with shaved fennel tangled in baby arugula, the mound topped with marinated onions, sun-dried tomato, and Crotonese — a sheep’s milk cheese, creamy yet with a sharpness that stands up to the bitter arugula, the pungent tomato. A bit of crunchy salt, judiciously sprinkled, finishes the plate.
Better mushrooms (these are tasteless) would improve the funghi salad. They’d improve the pizzas too, which are only OK.
One last starter disappoints. Zucchini fritters are doughy. We nibble around the crunchy edges, dunking them in the very good aioli, to avoid the under-cooked bits.
It’s rare to find made-in-house penne, but these longish tubes curl seductively around slow-roasted chicken and mushrooms, moistened with goat cheese, garlic-oil and wine. Ripe tomatoes, braised fennel, fresh clams and Tuscan peppers elevate the linguine vongole. Lots of flavour in these big bowls.
One visit, the sal grande — oil-slicked orecchiette pasta with peas, pancetta, peppers and spring onions — is perfectly balanced. Another night, it’s marred by an excessive amount of peas. If this were July, and the peas were fresh, by all means … bring them on. Otherwise a hint of pea is really all that’s needed. Gnocchi is properly tender, bathed in a solid tomato sauce.
The menu of pasta and pizza (too long in my opinion) is plumped with nightly featured fish and meat dishes. I’ve had some solid hits — the pork is magnificent, and the red snapper holds its own beneath a gutsy puttanesca sauce. But the steak is tough and stringy, the side of rapini cooked to mush.
A tart of brandy-softened dried figs and walnuts is wonderful. Even better is the chocolate budino, topped with crushed amaretti cookies.
Finish with a well-pulled espresso.
There is much to like here. But if Ventuno wants to compete with the other players on the Wellington strip, it needs to bump up its comforts.