On this brutal night, when only snow mobiles should be on the roads, I am told over the phone that La Porto a Casa is packed.
I ask them to check again. Surely, on this wretched evening, they must have a dozen cancellations?
What about later on? Should I call again in fifteen minutes?
She’s so very sorry, she cannot accommodate. And beside, the kitchen closes at eight.
For three weeks, I have been trying to get a table at this damn place. And no, this isn’t the latest Byward Market hottie. This is a mom and pop restaurant in a strip mall in Barrhaven. I had managed a late lunch here many weeks ago, after dropping off a kid at the train station across the street. Lunch had been tasty: I needed to return for dinner. She could fit me in next Wednesday at seven.
When I finally get my foot in the door I find that families dominate the bright, utilitarian room; that the kitchen’s strength is good gutsy food – fragrant, filling, flavourful plates of pasta, pizza, meats and mussels – and that this home-style Italian restaurant specializes in abundance.
There’s not much that’s delicate here – either in the look of the place (diner-casual, lights bright, Coke machine, industrious galley kitchen, kitschy Christmas decorations, hanging Chianti bottles on plastic grapevines, red and white checked tablecloths) or in the sturdy food – two full pages of home cooking at prices that keep the place packed.
A perky, cheery young woman arrives to welcome us. They hire good people here. We ask one of the good people about a starter and are immediately directed to the deep fried zucchini sticks. We obey and are not unhappy. Long sticks of seasoned zucchini wrapped in crunchy brown casings, dunked in a perky dip are ugly and perfect. Mussels are fresh, smelts are spicy, and a minestrone soup is packed with an excess of good stuff, served piping hot in and in quantity that feeds the three of us. It gets passed around.
Pace yourself. The helpings to come are just as generous. The cannelloni is gutsy, the veal florentina (with prosciutto, spinach, cheese and shrimp in a white wine sauce) has an appealing balance of creaminess, saltiness and green freshness. There is abundant seafood in the pescatore pasta.
The pizzas are chewy and flavourful. The “testa dura” is a favourite – seasoned with a profligate amount of garlic, hot peppers, spicy sausage, pitted black olives (not from a tin, thank you) and soft portabello mushrooms.
The tiramisu is very good.
They also have a short, sweet wine list of mostly Italian bottles at prices that are neighbourly – marked up at just under 100 per cent.
All in all, a dandy casa. Trouble is, too many people know it.