Our Tasting Ottawa group congregated on the border of Stittsville and Kanata last night at Fresco Bistro Italiano on Hazeldean Road. Cozy, charming and hip, this is a restaurant that’s ambiance is second only to its delicious meals. Although it was freezing rain outside, we felt warm and cozy in the private dining area with inviting banquets and warm lighting. Carole and I knew the food would be good as we have been to this bistro numerous times for lunch (they have THE best sandwiches!!) but we did not know the treat we were in for on this cold and rainy evening. The theme of the evening was an Italian Feast and the entire meal was served family style with beautiful platters being passed among our group, encouraging conversation and laughter!
Our meal began with a charcuterie platter with local cheeses, bison salami, prosciutto, lovely olives and mixed peppers accompanied by Art-is-in rosemary baguette crisps…to die for! The thin baguette crisps were the perfect vessels to hold the delicate meats and rich cheeses. A fig jam and grainy mustard added the aspect of sweet to the meat/cheese/bread’s saltiness while crunch played against soft with the peppers and olives. Our next course was an appetizer of warm olives with homemade foccacia bread. The bread was a pillow of savory dough with a rosemary and salt crust, dusted with cheese…..the perfect partner with the warm olives. My favourite olive was a quite young green olive that maintained its bite while still being warm and comforting.
Much to our surprise and delight, the “primi” courses or appetizers were to keep arriving. Next on the menu was an eggplant involtini (meaning stuffed, rolled and grilled) which was very good. Eggplant is not a favourite vegetable of mine as it can really become quite mushy when cooked. Fresco’s chef, however, lightly salted the eggplant first to remove the excess moisture which meant that the eggplant retained a great texture and flavour. The filling was a light but creamy ricotta…melt in your mouth! Next came my absolute favourite of the evening (trust me, it is hard to name favourites). The chef served perfectly cooked mussels in a tomato broth with chili, sausage and delicious fresh garnish of spring onions….they were the best mussels I have had since I was lived in Australia 7 years ago….I was thrilled! The mussels, like the rest of the food, were perfectly balanced with regards to texture and the flavour play between spicy and sweet.
Continuing with the theme Italian Feast the main courses arrived. First was a veal saltimbocca (translated literally to jump in mouth) is a traditional Italian dish of a veal cutlet wrapped in sage and prosciutto. This version used basil instead which I loved as I am extremely partial to anything with that lovely, delicate, perfumey herb. The veal was served with a Marsala gravy in gorgeous antique jugs!! This was a real treat for the eyes and the tastebuds. With the veal, the chef served crispy-on-the-outside, tender-in-the-middle Brussels sprouts with a creamy, mild Romesco sauce garnished with parmesan cheese. This often not liked vegetable is one of my favourite foods and its flavour and texture shone in this preparation….delish!
So….you must think we are on to dessert next?? Not so my friends….a salmon en papillote was served next. I am not partial to salmon so did not try this dish. It looked and smelled lovely and light when my fellow diners opened the papillote to reveal a blush coloured salmon with lemon and rosemary. My partner, Steve, loves salmon and said it was delicately flavoured and cooked very well. Alongside the salmon, a spinach side was served. This was another favourite for me. Wilted spinach with garlic, golden raisins with an unbelievably smart addition of crunchy pistachios….delectable! I was scraping the platter to put it crudely…but honestly!
Our final savory course was a pasta course. This was such a fun course and to see the chef so thrilled and excited to serve it to us was so wonderful! He had prepared a timbale (drum), which is an encased, layered pasta that is baked. For the outside “crust” the chef prepared homemade pasta and the inside was layered with penne in a cream sauce and spaghetti in a smoky tomato sauce. Arriving to our table on a large platter, the timbale (which does resemble a small drum) was placed down by the chef who admits “we are going to see if this worked when I cut it”….there was a lot of anticipation in the room. As the chef brings his knife through the drum of pasta, he is able to separate it completely into wedges without it falling apart….success! It was so nice for us to be included in that moment and I know every one of our attendees loved the atmosphere!
Finally….last but definitely not least….for dessert were homemade doughnuts with dulce de leche and delicious, creamy ice cream. The doughnuts were a bit crisp on the outside, soft as pillows on the inside and coated with a spice and sugar dusting….everything a donut should be. And…we got to take home the leftovers!
The entire evening was a true representative of what an Italian Feast is…rich in food, company, conversation and laughter. Needless to say, Fresco Bistro will be a regular haunt for us.
A huge thank you to owner, Matt Bickford, Chef Matty and our wonderful server Katie! We will see you all again soon.