2221 Bélanger St. E.
(near de Lorimier Ave.)
Open: Tuesday to Friday,
11 a.m.- 11 p.m.; Saturday
and Sunday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Wheelchair access: No
Cards: All major
Vegetarian-friendly: Pizza, pasta
and salad options.
Parking: Difficult on surrounding
streets near and on the weekend
Price range: Starters $4-$12;
main courses $10-$30; desserts $6-$10.
On Bélanger St. E., when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's Roberto. The restaurant's website greets you with the golden tones of Dean Martin singing That's Amore, and that title phrase is the restaurant's ubiquitous slogan. Nobody can be in any doubt that we're talking Italian.
On a balmy summer Saturday evening, a good-natured line-up snakes down the block as the locals gossip and flirt while waiting their turns to order Italian ice cream at the gelateria on the ground floor.
Upstairs, however, you'd better have a reservation. Roberto is an effortlessly sophisticated Italian restaurant that balances gracefully on the fine line between casual neighbourhood place and destination restaurant. No wonder it's popular, and not only with the locals.
Awarding stars like the ones at the top of this review to a restaurant like this one can be a perilous proposition. Roberto is not Le Latini, but like that more expensive Italian establishment Roberto can be very good at what it sets out to do.
You can have a pizza for as little as $11 or so, and maybe stop for gelati on the way out, or you can go for a full-scale four- or five-course dinner, for five or six times as much money.
For either price, you get the pleasing bustle of a big open-plan space (180 seats) artfully divided into several pleasant dining areas. The whole place greets you, as you reach the top of the stairs, with a lively sense of promise. The decor includes bottles of wine, which are for sale, shelves of books, which are not, a lively bar area, walls in rich blue and deep red, some metallic fittings, photos of celebrity visitors from Gérald Tremblay to Céline Dion to Louise Harel, and, at the head of the stairs, a selection of homemade pasta and balsamic vinegars, olive oil and souvenirs to buy on the way out.
On each of those products, on the wall, even on some of the plates, there's that logo: a woman whose hairstyle announces that the date is 1968, grinning proudly, and a boy of 7 dressed up, wide-eyed, and on his best behaviour. "That's a recent photo of me," says owner John D'Angelo, grinning.
He's in the photo with his mother, Angela, who's still active in the operation, and his late father, Roberto. On the restaurant's impressive website there's another shot, taken the same day at a wedding, depicting the whole family, 1956 immigrants to Canada who opened a restaurant in 1980 and moved it to this location in 1986.
The customers are equally family-oriented, to judge by the many two- or three-generational groups we saw around us. There was a distinct atmosphere of relaxed trilingual good cheer about the place.
Check out the scene before you pick up your menu, because it's the size of a newspaper and will block your view.
The table d'hôte offered 16 main-dish choices the day of our visit, and the carte offers many more, ranging from $7.50 sandwiches through pizza and pasta all the way up to the house specialty, slow-roasted meats. Some of the salads and pastas are offered individually but also in family portions, suitable for two or three people as one course of a meal. In all, it's a restaurant designed for flexibility.
Our appetizers were very good, and very good value - not always the same thing. Grilled asparagus paired with roasted portobello mushroom slices, topped with goat cheese melted just until leopard-like brown spots appeared, was unctuous and savoury. Grilled calamari rings, garnished with cherry tomatoes and a little oil, were perfect in texture, and most delicious where most grilled. Bresaola, paper-thin Italian dried beef, was the least interesting of the three but tasty all the same, set off with some arugula and a Parmesan crisp.
Gazpacho, refreshingly cool on a warm evening, recalled the Italian flag: a thick tomato version on one side of the bowl, a cucumber-rich green version on the other side, and a dollop of sour cream to provide the white.
We were able to sample a range of main dishes, from a $7.50 grilled-vegetables sandwich to the slow-roasted lamb for four times as much. The sandwich, on a ciabatta-type roll, was pleasingly filled with grilled eggplant, onion and mushrooms, plus some tomato and lettuce and a hint of bocconcini.
A plate of three pastas - a favourite dish of the youngest person in our party - scored two out of three. The fettuccine alfredo was sauced without excess, the penne arrabbiata not boringly timid but vigorously spicy. The tortellini with a rosa sauce, meat-filled, were not quite in the same league.
Perhaps our least successful dish was a linguine Fra Diavola with shellfish. Despite an adequate portion of tasty clams and a peppy sauce, the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts. Perhaps clams, unlike shrimp, are not well matched with spicy seasonings.
Slow-roasted meats are a Roberto specialty, with piglet, osso bucco, duck, rabbit, veal shank and liver on the la carte menu. The slow-roasted lamb, available only on the weekend table d'hôte, was a testimonial to the success of the venerable Italian technique. Marinated 24 hours, roasted for four hours, served with a sauce of white wine, rosemary and its own juices, this was a rectangular shoulder piece, the meat's mahogany crust hiding juicy, delicate flavour. The portion is generous, but you'll be tempted to use your hands and worry every last morsel off the bones. Don't ask me how I know.
Desserts here include a range of major productions, some of them quite sculptural. But the most pleasing of those we were able to try was a soda-fountain-style sundae dish filled with ice cream, raspberries and raspberry granita - cool and light and sweet.
The wine list is, as you would expect, strongly Italian and matched neatly to the just-good-but-not-swanky niche Roberto has found. Some reds get up into impress-your-visiting-relatives country, but most of them, and almost all the whites, are under $90, with lots of choices in the $40 range and a few wines available by the glass. We enjoyed a satisfactory light-bodied red Medoro sangiovese, from Umani Ronchi, for a very reasonable $30.
Service was both efficient and cordial, attentive but not cloying.