Type of cuisine: Traditional Italian fares (actually, mostly Pan-Italian with inspirations from the Marche region)
5849 Sherbrooke St W, Montreal
It’s one of the cuisines which intricacies and variants I know the most, along with Indian, Haitian, French, Moroccan, Thai, Greek, Chinese and couple of African fares. For sure, you can’t replicate Italian cooking done in Italy outside of Gaius Julius Caesar lands, but a great table should get closer enough and that is what PC is known for: everything is homemade, the pasta as fresh and it should from a respectable Italian eatery, and the ingredient of good level by Montreal dining standards. It is a family-run establishment that has been around for over 2 decades, passing on authentic recipes from the Marche region (as well as other Pan Italian dishes) from generations to generations, though, as you will see below, I wish there was more of the marchigiano staple dishes on offer (especially since some of them are quite distinct) .
The house is both a store and a sort of bistrot. The bistrot main dining area is narrow, its floor partly checkered, one side occupied by a long retro looking red booth. They also have two terraces, one almost 3 times the size of the other. This is a rather casual place with paper table mats and paper napkins. My waiter of the evening being a young Quebecois gentleman balancing great sense of humor with professionalism. A great waiter, —who despite the very informal and humble condition of the premises — offered a level of service that is usually expected at more upscale destinations (present when it should, attentive, his wine service simply without reproach on this instance).
Our meal started with a little amuse-bouche, which in this case was a Bruschetta, done as it should but limited by the quality of tomatoes we get here (simply no match to what one can find on the Mediterranean coast).
Since this was my first time at this location, I tried many things, starting with meatballs cooked in tomato sauce (moist, meaty and done exactly as you’ll find it in most parts of Italy — My wife who’s Italian also thought that this matched the meatballs that her nonno was cooking in her tender childhood),
–Olive Ascolane meat filled olives – Ascolane olives come from the Marche region, and I doubt you’ll find this item at other Italian restaurants in Montreal, so I had to try them. They are mild in taste, stuffed with meats (ground veal, pork) and serve breaded. Theirs had really refine coating, the looks reminescent of very pretty almonds in shape, only the color was …olive , and the filling is ..well, meaty and tasting of olive too, naturally, but not in a boring way, rather in a curious/interesting manner. This is the type of recipe that I value the most since it could pass as insignificant / simple at first glance, but with a sense for details you’ll quickly realize that it is, in facts, quite an elaborate recipe with varied possibilities of ingredients which flavors you need to balance carefully (nutmeg, carrot, cheese, etc ) and achieving the texture it commands takes skills/serious practice. I could not find one single fault to that dish, in every respect: texture, execution and it’s interesting to observe that they have achieved here what they failed to do with the risotto and stracciatella zuppa, which is controlling successfully the seasoning. Excellent 9/10
–Stracciatella zuppa: A soup made of grated parmesan cheese and beaten eggs. The overall taste as traditional as it should, with only possible debate being about personal preferences (there are various versions of this zuppa) and one flaw: it was way too salty. It’s as if whoever made this soup had forgotten that the cheese was already salty. I like scrambled egg-based soups since it’s easy to make an ordinary one, hard to make an outstanding version and if you have experienced with all sorts of scramble-egg based soups from various cultures, you’ll know that outstanding versions do exist…you just need to stumble upon a really good cook to realize how great such ordinary-sounding (ordinary-looking, too, as you’d expect from a scrambled-egg based soups) dish can taste like. Of course, if egg-drops versions of soups are not your thang, that’s another story, but this was one properly executed version of this classic (I had this soup many times throughout Italy and that one was as close as you’ll get, outside of the boot, to some of the originals) and it was almost up there with its finest examples, if only they could have controlled the salt… Still, profoundly tasty (I just can’t imagine how stunning it could have been with eggs of exceptional quality) 8/10
–Seafood tagliatelle had my focus switched on the homemade pasta itself, which was properly cooked to the bite as expected from such authentic Italian establishment, its texture good. The accompanying sauce was made of muscles, clams and white wine. Again, this is among the good pastas you’ll get in Montreal and what could be improved are things you can’t get here: obviously, the quality of water can’t be the same here as say, in Italy. Water playing a fundamental role in the varied taste of pasta from one place to another. Same applies to the quality of eggs. But what matters and can be controlled is successfully achieved here: the technique is spot on, the ingredients carefully sourced. 8/10
On top of their online menu (which is the only menu that appears on their web site), they have also have couple of ‘table d’hote’ menus consisting of a starter/main course/dessert and that varies in price (for eg, $24, $28 or $30) depending on the choices you make, as well as a short daily menu scribbled on a tiny board on which featured, on this evening: fish, fried aubergines as well as a black truffle/mushroom/sausage risotto ($22). I took the risotto, which was of good portion, had all aspects of an excellent risotto (great creamy consistency, arborio rice cooked to the bite and fabulous taste), but again it was heavily salted for my taste — fortunately, there were couple of cherry tomatoes atop of the rice that helped absorbing the oversalted taste (a risotto that I would have easily rated with a 9/10, but I could not cope with the heavy handling of salt, therefore 8/10 is a more accurate score – the heavy handling of the salt on the risotto and stracciatella zuppa was ununstandable given how the seasoning was carefully handled with the meat balls/olive Ascolane/seafood tagliatelle, ).
Available desserts were the same as what you can see on their online menu, and consisted of the common tiramisu, tartuffo, semifreddo and even a cassata siciliana …. In my view, the dessert menu would benefit from having something a bit more ‘marchigiano’ like the ‘funghetti di offida” (Anise cookies). I’ve heard that their cheesecake is something to try, but my wife sticked to the homemade tiramisu (the simple Italian staple semifreddo dessert having good quantity of mascarpone, the coffee-soaked biscuit done well, the overall comparable to some of the good /not great versions of Tiramisu enjoyed in Italy, though again…you can’t really always compare when ingredients are not from the same region, the clientele not exactly the same, the expectations neither, etc) . I took the homemade Cannoli, which with its thin pastry dough and flawless ricotta filling (they add a bit of rhum to it as well as whipping cream) is certainly not going to shake the standards of the cannoli in Sicily but remains an example of a very good cannoli by Montreal standards. 8/10 for the sweets.
The wine list is diminutive (5,6 choices of affordable Italian red wines; 2 bottles of white wine) with, outside of the wine, two type of Italian beers available and some few alcoholic beverages (grappa, sambucca). I chose a bottle based on a variety of grape (Verdicchio) which wines are strongly recommended to pair with marchigiano food (pairs actually well with all sort of seafood dishes) : a Velenosi Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2012 $30 at this restaurant but you can find it at $14.60 at the SAQ — SAQ code : 11155665 (the only other white wine available was an Italian Pinot Gris), a Denominazione di Origine Controllata variety of wine that comes from the Marche region. That’s both my wife’s and my kind of white wine (although, I am more into red wines): Medium bodied /jolly/fresh simultaneously fruity and floral long lasting intensity on the palate, and yet delicate. Verdicchio’s based wines are considered by many wine experts as Italy’s finest white wines and I am certainly not going to argue with that, lol.
The price: it’s on their web site (although they also have special menus — see above). Therefore as expensive or affordable as you want it to be.
PROS: Pasta Casareccia is my kind of place. They take the inspired route of making their pasta themselves (not that common by Montreal standards. Few restaurants serving pastas make their pastas themselves ) and they do it well. As knowledgeable Italian gourmets will tell you in Italy, it is about the pasta, not the sauce and at a place like this, you really get that point (assuming that you do really mind about such details). Although it remains no benchmark as far as pastas go, it still does some damn great ones by local standards. It is also a place where another cooking aspect that I find fundamental is noticeable: there’s a depth, there’s a memory of taste because food needs an identity, food is not about one flavor that was just developped 5 or 15 years ago, a taste that you just discovered recently, something trendy on the making… Real food, food that has soul (which meaning means nothing to some…) is possible only when generations of cooks properly share their knowledge with newer generations. They are mastering the fundamentals, have shared it properly.
CONS: (1) I’d welcome a marchigiano’s version of the known brodetto (fish stew) in the ‘zuppa’ section of their online menu. It would certainly impart something more ‘marchigiano’ than pasta e fagioli or tortellini in brodo. Same for the pastas: why not inserting something more regional on top of the other well known pan-Italian pastas. For eg, the passatelli (that is also found in Northern Italy, but at least less ‘national’ /common than the usual spaghetti or penne. Though there’s always a possibility that this will pop up on the daily (non online) menu.
(2)For a region also known for its seafood, I was surprised to see virtually no fish-based dishes on their menu. Fortunately, the menu of the day had one dish of fish. (3)The salty dishes on this evening.
Overall food score: This is technically 8/10 (Very good) cooking skills by Montreal Italian cooking standards (not to be confused with an overall score that would also imply decor, ambience etc…it’s basically a laidback bistrot attached to a store), but the instances of heavy salt handling could foolishly make that score pass as too generous. This is a case where it goes down to how you’ll relativize a detail like this one: for you, does an almost perfect technically achieved risotto stop being great because of its degree of salinity? All I can tell you is that this is my sole visit here (so perhaps it was just an exception, that over-salting problem) and that perhaps some like it saltier than others . It would be a mistake to allow the beautiful skills showcased in the work of that risotto to be overshadowed by the perceived over-salting dilemma – That said, this is clearly among the most authentic Italian restaurants you will find in Montreal. Consistently great cooking skills (not the kind of place that will strive for perfection only on one or two good items here and there, rather a kitchen which skills and efforts can be even appreciated in things as simple as a soup! ), for sure. It’s interesting to observe that such a skillful kitchen does not make the news, leaving all the media space to supposedly superior tables (which, in facts, are not superior…just buzz/trend-friendly).