Ottawa’s food scene has come a long way. Just a few decades ago, the joke was that if you asked where to get a good meal in the nation’s capital, you’d be told “In Montreal.” Today, our region is considered a culinary Mecca. It’s a place where thoughtful food producers, passionate chefs and knowledgeable diners intersect in so many delicious ways. Restaurants will continue to come and go, but there will always be some stalwarts who make a positive impact year in and year out. Here’s a look at four of them.
Ottawa native Joshua Bishop got his start in the food industry at Toronto’s famed Rodney’s Oyster House before returning here to launch his first local venture, Whalesbone Catering, a service of “oysters to your backyard.” Success fuelled expansion. Next up was the Whalesbone Oyster House on Bank in 2005, the Whalesbone Oyster and Fish Supply on Kent in 2008 and the Elmdale Oyster House and Tavern on Wellington in 2013. This spring, he’ll open another new spot, the Whalesbone on Elgin.
The newest member of the Whalesbone family will stay true to its roots, even offering the brown bag lunch option that has been so popular at the Kent location. Chef Michael Radford also plans to include more beef dishes, but Joshua says this is merely a diversification, not a true deviation. “The demand for quality seafood has been growing and it will always be our prime focus.
“Chefs and consumers are definitely much more knowledgeable about oysters and sustainable fish than when we opened, but it’s still an ongoing education process. As responsible fishmongers, we enjoy the opportunity to share information and help cooks and diners make informed choices. I’m glad people are so eager now to learn where their food comes from and how it was harvested.”
Over the years, Joshua has seen a lot of very talented chefs pass through his kitchens, including Steve Vardy, Charlotte Langley, Steve Wall and Ben Ng, who is now at the helm of Noma in Copenhagen which is considered by many to be the world’s best restaurant. “We are lucky. Most of the chefs in Ottawa are first class and I’d say the food bar is pretty darn high here – I’m very optimistic for the future.”
With more than sixty years’ experience at Mamma Teresa between them, co-owners Frank Schimizzi and Walter Moreschi know what it takes to keep diners happy. “We started out as busboys in the 1980s and were honoured to purchase the business in 2008 when founder Guiliano Boselli was ready to retire after almost forty years,” explains Frank. “We’ve changed very little about Mamma Teresa because our loyal clientele likes things the way they’ve always been done here. We treat everyone like family and the food is authentic and made from scratch.”
For decades, Mamma Teresa has played host to all of Ottawa’s movers and shakers. The photographs that line the walls tell a tale of a restaurant where innumerable deals were brokered, particularly in the private dining rooms upstairs. “There is never a dull moment,” laughs Walter. “We enjoy feeding politicians, visiting celebrities, diplomats as well as our valued regular guests. Everyone gets the same treatment.”
Despite ever-changing food trends, the menu at Mamma Teresa has evolved little. Seafood pasta and veal scaloppini remain best sellers, as do the hot and cold antipasto plates. Frank notes that the biggest change has been finding ways to accommodate food intolerances, which they are pleased to do whenever necessary. “There’s something for everyone here,” he confirms.
Their formula works, so much so that the partners opened a second location in Chelsea in 2014. Yet the greatest testament to Mamma Teresa’s enduring popularity is perhaps the fact that multi-generational families love to eat there. “We’ve got people coming in who were kids when the restaurant first opened; now they’re bringing their own children and even grandchildren. It’s pretty special,” says Frank.
PASTICCERIA GELATERIA ITALIANA
Ottawa has a longstanding reputation as a cosmopolitan city, due to our diplomatic community and a significant percentage of residents who travel for business and pleasure. It was those demographic aspects that convinced Joe Calabro to open Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana on Preston Street in 1979.
“It was the right time and the right location,” says Joe, an internationally-acclaimed, award-winning pastry chef and chocolatier who is largely self-taught. “The shop quickly developed a base of very loyal customers, including lots of Italians. These were primarily people who had travelled in Europe and appreciated that we offered the same style of hospitality and similar ambiance. We were the first place in the city to offer homemade gelato in a European-style café.”
Over the years, Joe and his team have added new elements to their menu, including a vast array of delectable pastries, hot and cold breakfast and lunch service, seasonal treats and catering. “We opened our wedding cake gallery and studio in 1991 and this remains a big part of our business today.”
The family-run operation has seen its ups and downs over the years, including a devastating fire in 2011. Through it all, they maintained their popularity with diners near and far, and are now serving a third generation of customers.
While tastes evolve, Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana remains a crowd pleaser, confirms Joe. “People still like to have a treat once in a while and when they do, they want it to be a quality one. Our European style desserts have less sugar and people really seem to like that, especially today. What I do brings joy to people and that feels really good.”
L’ORÉE DU BOIS
A cozy farmhouse tucked into the woods on the edge of Gatineau Park is often described as one of the most romantic restaurants in the area. Thirty-five years ago it changed hands and the Italian restaurant called Luigi became the charming l’Orée du Bois, serving excellent classic French cuisine. Their dishes expertly incorporate locally-sourced ingredients that infuse the menu with tastes of regional terroir.
Current chef-owner Jean-Claude Chartrand has been in the restaurant’s kitchen for seventeen years, and assumed ownership with his wife Josée in 2012. He says that places like l’Orée du Bois joined the local culinary landscape on the heels of Expo 67, which brought lots of European chefs to Montreal. “Many stayed to open restaurants, including a number in the Ottawa area.”
Jean-Claude feels that l’Orée du Bois’ perennial success stems from the fact that it has always been run by a dedicated chef-owner. He says one of the most important aspects of keeping the more than 28,000 customers they serve each year satisfied has been standardization. “We spent ten years working through every single recipe and calculated precisely how many grams of each ingredient are required. The recipe books we have created assure guests of a consistent experience.”
While Jean-Claude has made few menu changes, he does have exciting plans for the future. “We’d like to add a terrace and I plan to pursue more international culinary competitions as well. These events are a boost for the confidence as well as a wonderful marketing opportunity for us. But above all else, we will always focus on providing good value. That’s what we’re known for at l’Orée du Bois.”