Where’s the soul?

 

This is not to question the economics of the Crudo family’s latest hospitality venture, Bottega 104. The 60-seat restaurant on 104th Street is just a block south of Rogers Place.

The new restaurant was jam-packed on Saturday evening before an Oilers pre-season game. The fancy cocktails, wine and beer were flowing. The pastas and pizzas streamed out from the busy kitchen. Ka-ching, ka-ching! You could hear the cash registers singing!

But where was the soul?

The two other major restaurants owned by Nick and Cristo Crudo and their dad Giuseppe, Café Amore and the Black Pearl Seafood, overflow with soul and old-world hospitality. Half the staff seem to be related, the smells, the conviviality, the big platters of fabulous fresh food, the checkered table cloths, the bantering, the fabulous soups ....

When the Weekly Dish last reviewed Café Amore two years ago, it earned 4.5 of 5 Suns for food, 4 for ambience, 4.5 for service. The Black Pearl, reviewed 18 months ago, earned a fabulous 5 of 5 Suns for food, a perfect 5 for ambience and 4.5 for service.

Bottega 104 has about as much soul as Joey or Earl’s, which is to say next-to-none. Don’t take this as a knock against the Joey/Earl’s/Cactus Club intertwined restaurant groups. As far as chain restaurants go, they are the best in the business. But all operate on headquarters-dictated formulas.

Bottega 104 might as well be an Earl’s or a Joey’s. It sticks to the same formulas – the décor is very modern, full of clatter and very chic – modern brick, granite countertops and wood. The room is long and narrow, with the usual skinny bar/counter down one side, tables up front and booths across from the bar. By 7 p.m. the music is loud with a thumpin’ bass line. The servers are attractive young women in black cocktail dresses. Nope, no formula here!

Where’s the soul?

It’s not in the food, which was good, but not close to Black Pearl or Café Amore standards. The actual choice is conventional, but well thought-out – one can dine for $20 or $70, with an interesting selection of antipasti (small plates, appetizers) and salads in the $14 to $20 range, pastas and individual pizzas in the $15 to $22 range, and big entrees running from $30 up. Lunches feature paninis.

Of the five dishes we tried, the poached pear salad and arancini (battered deep-fried rice balls) were excellent, the spaghetti carbonara was good, the tiramisu average, and the cozze (mussel) broth so salty as to be bread-dipping inedible.

The spaghetti carbonara personified Bottega 104’s issues. The white cream and egg sauce, livened up with a generous handful of shredded and smoked pancetta, was delicious – as good as anything at Café Amore. But the spaghetti itself was thick and sticky, sitting heavy in the stomach.

Credit the Crudo family with adventure, breaking free of the Italian village mentality, trying on an urbane, trendy personality for size.

But the reality is Bottega 104 is just another well-run, formulaic, trendy, impersonal downtown restaurant with better-than-average, but certainly not spectacular food.

Where’s the soul?

Food Notes

Veteran city hospitality man Franco Bavaro has opened an excellent all-Italian panini lunch spot in the heart of the downtown. Nonna’s Bistro (10061 Jasper Avenue) is sandwiched between State & Main on one side, Hoang Long/7-Eleven on the other.

“The Godfather” is a big, fat, spicy panini – packed with hot genoa, pepperoni and soppressata calabrese cold cuts from the Italian Centre, using cheddar rather than Italian cheeses, a layer of cooked onions and crowned with a rich roasted red pepper spread. Delicious! Nonna’s Panini is the same thing, but not spicy.

The next time I will try “The Beast” – a meal-sized panini with marinated roast beef and Franco’s grandma-inspired tomato sauce. Prices are in the $10 per panini range.

The salad, however, was wilted, made from yesterday’s lettuce. It definitely needs an upgrade.

* **

Well-known and respected Edmonton chef Lindsay Porter (El Cortez, Woodwork) is soon (October 20) to open her own restaurant in Edmonton’s deep south, past the Henday off 91 Street at 2307 Elwood Drive S.W. London Local promises to be a “casual, pub-style, English-inspired and contemporary” eatery.

Bottega 104

Address: 10181-104 St.

Phone: 780-244-1290

Website: Bottega104.com (under construction)

Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11 am to 12 midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Price: Dinner for two, excluding tip and beverages: basic, $42; loaded, $96

Ratings: Food: 3.5 of 5 Suns

Ambience: 3.5 of 5 Suns

Service: 4 of 5 Suns