“It’s nice they give free refills of iced tea.”
Yes, I agree, with my 15-year-old. That is nice.
We’re quiet for a while. He picks at his dish, I pick at mine.
He’s a nice boy, this boy of mine. Slow to find fault. His dad’s genes dominate.
“Do you like your chicken?” I ask.
“It’s OK. A bit dry, I guess,” he says.
“Do you like your pasta,” he asks me, in turn.
He takes another sip of his second iced tea, and I take one of my wine, and we both agree we really like the feel of the place. Fresco Bistro Italiano (once called Frescocielo, and it’s still called that on the restaurant’s awning) has a relaxed ambience. We like the old brick walls, precision-hung with framed black and whites of ordinary Ottawa scenes. We like the quirky wine cork display nailed to the pillar at the copper-topped bar, and how the lighting balances the retro with the modern, flattering the complexion of both the middle-aged and mottled. We like the bistro feel of brown paper covers over white linen, the long black leather bench and the little candles on every table. One of us likes the TV over the bar tuned into the Senators game, albeit going badly.
And so it went at my fourth and final visit to Fresco Bistro Italiano on Elgin Street. Looks, 10. Food, three.
The Ottawa restaurant scene is many scenes, of course, and this restaurant belongs to a “scene” that has a remarkable and puzzling endurance. I refer to Italian-ish restaurants. They arrived in the 1980s and their bill of fare really hasn’t changed much in decades. They almost always have Sambucca shrimp, for instance, and bruschetta, regardless of season, deep-fried, battered calamari and a goat cheese and grilled vegetable salad. They do dishes they call risotto (which in this case turns out to be mushy rice) and gnocchi (which taste like they come from a bag) and you can always, for a price, add grilled chicken or tiger shrimp to any pasta dish.
You can now request gluten-free pasta (add $2) or multigrain spaghettini. The other bit of modernity is the sharing platter that favours compilation over cooking. Fresco has two of these. I’ve only tasted the seafood one.
The Antipasti di mare was $17 of defrosted rings of rubbery squid, three grilled shrimp, which tasted mostly of salt, a few mushy smoked mussels that tasted of their tin, two rolls of smoked salmon (fine enough), a lemon wedge, a few capers and a pile of olives and pickled vegetables from any supermarket. In other words, an assembly of what ate like inferior ingredients, many of which seemed resentful of being thrown together, priced heftily.
The fried calamari ($12) tasted only of oil and batter. Beneath the crisp brown wrappers, one could be eating anything.
The soup of the day – chickpea, roasted red pepper and pancetta – had good flavour, but the peas were undercooked. The grilled vegetables in the goat cheese salad were dull and very cold. The citrus beet salad with toasted pine nuts, feta and orange was a better bet and the carpaccio, though not stellar, was good enough.
The pastas on offer go like this: you choose your noodle, you choose your treatment. The pastas on offer taste like this: pasta cooked earlier, reheated with sauce on top. I have yet to eat anything al dente, or any sauce that sings, or any pasta that binds with any sauce. They use comical amounts of garlic.
The gnocchi is trumpeted at every dinner. I ask if it’s made in-house. They admit not. But the sauce, they tell me, is to die for. True, put enough cream, bacon and mushrooms on something and it masks all kinds of fundamental problems. Gnocchi should taste of potatoes. These were stodgy, flavourless bullets. We were told the ravioli was homemade, but the pasta wrappers were too thick and the filling (portobello mushrooms and cheese) was glue that took some serious tongue work to dislodge from the roof of my mouth. And please, please, if you aren’t willing (or unable) to go the distance to turn firm kernels of rice into creamy, al dente magic, then don’t put risotto on your menu. This risotto was mushy, oversalted cafeteria fare.
I thought the vegetables were nicely done with the main dishes, but most of the entrÃ©es I tried were flawed. The duck ($28) was tough and overcooked, the chicken was a bit dry, and the veal, which should be an Italian restaurant’s crowning moment, was grey and sinewy and far too thick for scallopine. I thought the pickerel pretty good – it tasted fresh, was encrusted with cornmeal, and served with a beet relish – but that turgid side of white wine and parmesan risotto brought it down.
Servers are pleasant enough, but they all use cheat sheets. Every time. At every hour. Please memorize the day’s soup and the day’s two specials; if you can’t, you shouldn’t be a server in a restaurant with main dishes upward of $25.
We liked the tiramisu and the carrot cake, moist and carroty with a pleasant roof of cream-cheese frosting. The lemon tart, however, managed to be puckering yet only dimly lemoned, its pastry a bit soggy.
The bill we were given at each visit made me grumpy. For the same price, I can point you in all sorts of delicious directions. So why is this place so busy? A puzzle that.
My son is grumpy too, but mostly because the Sens lost. Though, lucky him, he doesn’t have to write about it.