Buco-style crispy-skinned seabass , served with a light mayo sauce. Photos by GRAHAM HICKS/EDMONTON SUN

Buco Pizzeria and Vino Bars
bucopizzera.com

Buco EPCOR Tower,
10423-101 St., main floor
780-250-2826
Mon. to Fri. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (1 a.m. Friday)
Sat. 4 p.m.  to 1 a.m.
Sun. 4 p.m. to 11 a.m.

Buco Windermere,
1155 Windermere Way S.W.
780-540-2826
Tues. to Sat. 11 a.m. to midnight (1 a.m. Friday/Saturday)
Sun. and Mon. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Buco St. Albert,
130 Bellerose Dr., St. Albert
780-569-2826
Mon. to Fri. 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. Friday)
Sat. 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Sun. 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Dinner for two, not including tip, tax or beverage:  Basic, $30; loaded, $80

Food – 4.5 of 5 Suns

Ambience – 4 of 5 Suns
Service –  4 of 5 Suns

Graham Hicks
780-707-6379
graham.hicks@hicksbiz.com
Hicksbiz.com
@hicksonsix

Even Carmelo Rago, top dog of the family-run Sorrentino/Buco restaurant group, is surprised at the welcome the city has given the now three-strong Buco Pizzeria and Vino Bar outlets.

My wife and I went to the new, deep southwest, Windermere Buco this past Monday evening, and it was nearly full.

Any time we’ve dropped by the now two-year-old original Buco in St. Albert – brunch, midweek, dinner – it’s busy. 

Now the downtown’s Buco EPCOR Tower – a two-minute walk east of Rogers Place –  is catching on with the downtown crowd.

It’s not surprising, but it is surprising.

The Sorrentino’s Group began as Sorrento’s – a small, nondescript Italian restaurant in Castledowns some 40 years ago. The Rago and Saccomanno families have since grown the Italian-based restaurant group to six Sorrentino’s, three Bucos, three Caffe Sorrentinos, and the affiliated Bistecca Steakhouse.

Not surprising because Sorrentino’s has maintained a splendid reputation over the years for consistently good food at reasonable prices, contemporary surroundings, and family-like service and atmosphere.

It is surprising because the Edmonton’s restaurant business has become more and more challenging – labour costs have been pushed up by minimum-wage hikes, food prices are forever increasing, the competition keeps intensifying and a slightly nervous customer base isn’t spending like it used to.

Into that swirling cauldron the Sorrentino’s Group has made the bold move of hitching its future star to the very modern, very chic, very expensive-to-launch, but inexpensive-to-eat Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar concept.

One of Sorrentino’s most endearing qualities is the fact each restaurant is similar, but different.

The three Bucos are united by the same menu,  modern glass/steel-grey brick/dark wood decors, high ceilings, kitchens so open they might as well be in the dining room, and a seamless mingling of dining/bar-dining spaces. The atmosphere can be as informal or formal as the occasion demands.

The Buco Windermere open kitchen.

The food, in a word, is excellent.  Don’t let the “pizzeria” in the name fool you. The pizzas are important – each Buco kitchen has a beautiful, tile-lined, wood-burning pizza oven capable of searing-hot temperatures – but the menu goes far beyond pizza,

At Windermere, we dined on chef’s bruschetta – lovely ciabatta toast with porchetta (pork tenderloin) slices on a non-traditional creamy buttery base; an unusual combo of fresh mussels with crumbled sausage (a meal unto itself at $14), and a perfectly seared seabass filet with crispy skin served with a complimentary light mayonnaise. The only flaw was the over-salted mushroom ravioli, the surfeit of salt drowning other delicate flavours.

Two styles of Buco bruschette.

At Buco EPCOR, the assaggini (“Little Tastes”) menu was sampled at an Art of Conversation gathering last week. Designed for inexpensive snacks to accompany after-work drinks, the Buco’s meatballs hit the spot, as did delicious, lightly deep-fried arancini risotto balls. The specialty pizza pieces – seafood, calabrese, prosciutto – left you begging for more, except other foods kept emerging from the Buco EPCOR kitchen.

And I am still in food heaven as I recall Buco St. Albert’s caprese salad from a few months ago, with a basil pesto dressing, balsamic vinegar and fresh mint sprinkled over sliced tomatoes and Italian mozzarella.  

Separate, but equal:  Separate, but individual. Part of the Sorrentino magic is to hire top-notch chefs and somehow give them enough rein to make their restaurants unique, yet still conform to a recognizable brand.  Rago has been tearing his hair out ever since – maintaining a balance between corporate menus and individual chef creativity is not easy.

But it must work, because the same thing is happening with the three Buco Pizzeria and Wine Bars.

Windermere chef Medi Tabtoub made his name at now-closed Vivo Downtown.  Buco EPCOR is run by Spencer Thompson, formerly executive chef at the Alberta Hotel and Grill. Chef Abhi Nechikkat oversees Buco St. Albert. Sorrentino’s corporate chef Chris Hrynyk created the overall menu. With this overall culinary depth, the chef’s daily specials are truly special.

The Sorrentino’s magic is working one more time.  Congratulations to all involved, hitting the Buco concept out of the park. Methinks the Buco brand will be just as popular for the next 40 years as Sorrentino’s has been for the past 40.

This coming Sunday marks the start of another Sorrentino’s tradition, the month-long Sorrentino’s Garlic Festival.