I was so excited the other week when I was invited by Chianti Cafe Calgary NE (aka Chianti’s to those who use the hip lingo) to come in for a complimentary meal. In addition to any potential and inadvertent influence that might occur from the planned nature of my recent meal there, I should also let you know I’m already a long-time fan of this family of restaurants. The Chianti’s on Whyte Ave in Edmonton was my Italian comfort food paradise when I was being treated for Hodgkin’s disease as a teenager and it was a vital stop before big nights out with friends when I was in University.
Sadly for me, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d stopped in! Matt’s a big fan as well, so he was more than happy to join me for a Friday night dinner. His favourite Chianti’s memories were frequent $9.99 Pasta Frenzy lunches with colleagues when he still worked in the northeast. It was a great opportunity to see if they still lived up to the nostalgia!
There are some differences between the different Chianti Cafe venues. To jog your memory, the one on 32 Ave is the only Calgary location whose default welcome after seating guests is a basket of fresh, warm, house-made focaccia with a dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. (Don’t worry, the bread, oil and vinegar are all 0 calories, I checked). This was great to enjoy while thumbing through the menu, which has slowly changed over the years. They still serve Italian-North American staples like chicken Parmigiana and spaghetti Bolognese, but they keep it fresh and accessible with offerings like their chicken with spaghetti squash and the curry-spiked fettuccine Supremo with scallops and smoked salmon.
In addition to their regular drinks, Chianti’s has a rotating feature cocktail and wine menu. On the night we were there, the feature cocktails were each $6 and featured a heavy Disaronno influence – this liqueur tastes like Christmas to me, but Matt really enjoyed his Disaronno sour! I myself opted for a $9 pour of their featured red. It was a very sweet and unpretentious Canadian blend that felt perfect for the awkward summer weather we were having that day (sweaty and sunny with a chance of severe thunderstorms, of course!)
We had one of the most experienced servers in the house (as we later learned from our hostess) so he was extremely well versed in the menu and able to give us a lot of suggestions. For our appetizer, we went with his advice and tried the Fonduta alla Chianti, which is a baked cream cheese, crab, artichoke and green onion dip topped with broiled cheese and served on toasted hunks of house focaccia. This was very tasty, creamy and not too large a portion. It was packed with lots of real crab and cheese, so it felt like quite a good value for $10.
For mains, I went for the Salmon con Gamberoni ($21) or salmon with prawns in a velvety white wine sauce with onions and capers. On the side was some of their house made cheese-stuffed ravioli with sautéed red and green peppers. The plating was a bit haphazard, but the food spoke for itself as soon as we started eating. The salmon was cooked perfectly – it was very moist and the flakes gently slid apart to form perfectly-sized, tender mouthfuls. The prawns were peeled and easy to eat neatly with a fork and knife – ideal for date night! The white wine sauce had just the right balance of sweetness and acid. I thought the bell peppers were a bit overcooked – to be honest, they could have been left out of the dish entirely for me as the fresh pasta and seafood held up the plate just fine on their own. All told, this dish ended up being Matt’s favourite of the night!
We couldn’t come to Chianti’s without gorging on some pasta and I was delighted to be reminded by our server that rather than order one of the many options for $12-13.50, diners can pay $15 to receive a plate loaded up with any two pastas. Matt and I went into this meal thinking there was no way they’re serving fresh pasta at those low prices, but staff confirmed that yes, it’s all made in house! With all of this in mind, we opted for the gnocchi with creamy pesto and the spaghetti carbonara. The gnocchi had a great texture (tender, not chewy!) and the pesto was wonderfully bright and fresh. Their carbonara can be made creamier or drier to the diner’s preference – we went with creamy at Matt’s request and were not disappointed. Great flavour, even if a bit of the egg came out slightly scrambled.
Just as Matt was declaring that he had absolutely no room for dessert, the waiter walked up behind him and began describing our options. Once Matt heard Chianti’s makes a lot of their own desserts in house, including their popular tiramisu, cheesecake and red velvet, it was pretty easy to convince him we had to try one. We opted for the tiramisu and were blown away. I haven’t had such a tasty tiramisu in quite a while and was impressed by the lovely presentation. The lady fingers weren’t soggy like I find so often at other places and the dessert whole dish was nicely balanced between the sweetness, creaminess and light bitterness from the coffee. Real whipped cream on the side never hurts my feelings, either. Despite his earlier protestations, Matt quickly and quietly polished off his half of this mascarpone and espresso-laced treat.
I always wonder if we’re receiving extra-special service when it’s known we’re stopping in for some photos, but I got the sense watching the waitstaff that every group received the same courteous service no matter what the occasion – In the immediate area surrounding our little date night, there was a large family celebrating a birthday down a long table, a mother and daughter sharing appetizers before an evening of shopping and a pack of teens slurping down spaghetti so fast it made my head spin. Chianti Cafe Calgary NE (2805 – 32 Avenue NE) is still one of my favourite places to go for casual Italian food that tastes, feels and frankly looks homemade. I’m so glad to see them continuing to thrive and provide the same delicious food and friendly service that has made them an Alberta family staple for over 25 years.