RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE FOR FIORELLINO

The Ital­ian masters have set up shop in the for­mer Lau­rier Bar­be­cue build­ing

Montreal Gazette - - WEEKENED LIFE - LES­LEY CHESTERMAN You can hear Les­ley Chesterman on ICI Ra­dio-Canada Première’s Médium Large (95.1 FM) Tues­days at 10 a.m., and on CHOM (97.7 FM) Wed­nes­days at 7:10 a.m. crit­ic­snote­book@gmail.com twit­ter.com/Les­leyChestr­man

When a fa­mous restau­rant calls it a day, it’s al­ways in­ter­est­ing to see what hap­pens to its lo­cale.

The Parc Ave. build­ing that housed the once-bustling Chez Gau­tier sits dusty and empty, and through the win­dows you can see menus scat­tered on the floor.

The renowned Cit­rus, ar­guably the birth­place of con­tem­po­rary Que­bec cui­sine, lasted a mere 18 months in the 1990s. Since then, its St-Lau­rent Blvd. lo­cale has seen many in­car­na­tions, rang­ing from a Por­tuguese restau­rant to an Ital­ian restau­rant, to a restau­rant where magic tricks were per­formed at the ta­ble. To­day, the space houses a Burger de Ville, and ea­gle-eyed gourmets can still spot a few clues to its il­lus­tri­ous past. And as for the el­e­gant Laloux, the beau­ti­ful lo­cale has yet to re­open, with many of us wait­ing to see what will be­come of that for­merly ex­quis­ite space on des Pins Ave. Fin­gers crossed.

Outremont’s iconic Lau­rier Bar­be­cue was an­other once-fab­u­lous restau­rant. In its orig­i­nal in­car­na­tion as a fa­mous ro­tis­serie chicken resto, it was the epit­ome of gloomy be­fore un­der­go­ing a mega makeover to be­come the chic but short-lived Lau­rier Gor­don Ram­say in 2011. Post-ro­tis­serie, the restau­rant was given yet an­other elab­o­rate reno in 2013, be­com­ing Lau­rea from 2014 to 2016. Since then, the space has laid dor­mant, with all sorts of ru­mours fly­ing about who would take it over.

Then last spring news dropped that the Fiorellino part­ners (also of Jel­ly­fish and the now-closed Buo­nan­otte) would give it a go.

I en­joyed the orig­i­nal Fiorellino restau­rant on de la Gauchetière St. W., where the pasta, pizza and just about ev­ery­thing on the menu is swell. Pizza seems to be a sure bet these days, so per­haps this group was the right fit for a surely high-rent space on one of the city’s most cel­e­brated streets.

Fiorellino II opened in mid-Oc­to­ber. I went to check it out early for sev­eral rea­sons, the first be­ing that the two restau­rants more or less share the same menu (con­ceived by chef Erik Man­drac­chia), so as much as it’s a new restau­rant, it’s not a new con­cept.

Sec­ond rea­son: the strip of Lau­rier Ave. W. on which it is lo­cated has fi­nally re­opened af­ter months of con­struc­tion. I’m sure every busi­ness on this street is breath­ing a ma­jor sigh of re­lief.

Restau­rants have been hurt­ing here, so it’s im­por­tant to share the news that the night I dined at Fiorellino, the road was un­der­go­ing a fi­nal paving and paint­ing — so, all clear!

I was also ea­ger to see what they did with the space, as

Lau­rea had moved the main din­ing room up­stairs and used the down­stairs space as a bar and mi­cro­brasserie restau­rant. De­signer Jean-Guy Chabauty has used both floors to cre­ate two din­ing rooms, with long, pea­cock-blue leather ban­quettes ideal for fam­i­lies and groups. There’s a bar, an elab­o­rately tiled floor, and an Ital­ian wood-burn­ing oven in the back. The chairs look like vin­tage ro­tis­serie throw­backs, giv­ing the sleek Ital­ian dé­cor a folksy ac­cent. It’s all large, airy and clean-look­ing, verg­ing on a lit­tle cold, but hope­fully as the room fills up that chill will dis­ap­pear.

I was thrilled to see a fa­mil­iar face in maître d’ An­dreas Vec­chio, who was one of the star at­trac­tions at the re­cently closed Hostaria. Not only is he the sweet­est of fel­lows, he also knows his wines, so feel free to ask for sug­ges­tions. We be­gan with a cou­ple of ap­pe­tiz­ers and two lovely Ital­ian whites by the glass, which en­hanced our food per­fectly. The menu is text­book Ital­ian, in that it of­fers an­tipasti fol­lowed by both primi (pasta) and sec­ondi (meat and fish), but there are also 10 red-sauce piz­zas and five white-sauce piz­zas. I es­pe­cially like that the cook­ing is more cre­ative than clas­sic, adding an ele­ment of ex­cite­ment to this al­ways com­fort­ing cui­sine.

We be­gan with fritto misto, a mush­room salad and a cauliflower salad, win­ners one and all. The mixed fry-up in­cluded cala­mari, clams, zuc­chini and aubergine — all hot, crisp, and ide­ally zuzzed up with a squeeze of le­mon. The mush­room salad ap­peared at first to be mush­room free, as the meaty king mush­rooms were un­rec­og­niz­able, sliced pa­per thin and lay­ered with Parme­san sliv­ers, arugula and hazel­nuts. I loved the whole thing, which was a bit on the oily side, but the olive oil was so good that we lapped it all up. I en­joyed the cauliflower salad, too, with the flow­erets fried golden and served with fried chick­peas, basil leaves and sliced pep­pers. All good.

Next, we opted for two orig­i­nal pas­tas with veg­etable fill­ings. The first fea­tured but­ter­nut squash­filled ag­nolotti topped with thin sheets of ri­cotta salata and wilted dan­de­lion greens. Squash pas­tas are al­ways a favourite, but this one even more so: the fill­ing was oh so vel­vety, with the sweet­ness bal­anced by the bit­ter greens and salty cheese. The other dish was quite dif­fer­ent, fea­tur­ing hot­pink half-moons of pasta stuffed with a ri­cotta and beet fill­ing, served with red and golden beets and a pis­ta­chio pesto over­top. Again, the dish risked head­ing into cloy­ing ter­ri­tory, but the flavours were well bal­anced — no mean feat with sweet beets!

You can dine at Fiorellino with­out order­ing pizza, but it would be a shame — the orig­i­nal restau­rant makes some of the best in the city. Here we or­dered a pretty ba­sic pie, the funghi e cotto, topped with fresh moz­zarella, toma­toes, mush­rooms and ham. The req­ui­site Dal­ma­tian-spot­ted crust was chewy and flavour­ful, with the ideal wheati­ness, but the cen­tre was un­der­cooked to my taste, leav­ing the fill­ings in the mid­dle quite soupy. Don’t get me wrong — this is still ex­cel­lent pizza. But in my mem­ory, the sis­ter restau­rant’s pies were a notch up. I think I’ll need to taste a half-dozen more, mind you, be­fore I can come down with a def­i­nite opin­ion.

For dessert, Vec­chio rec­om­mended an as­sort­ment of three small sweets, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of can­noli, amaretti cookies sand­wiched with ri­cotta cream, and home­made Baci can­dies.

The re­duced por­tion size was a god­send af­ter a full meal, and every morsel — from the crispon-the-out­side/melt­ing-on-thein­side can­noli to the del­i­cate amaretti to the scrump­tious Baci — was de­li­cious. I won­dered why they didn’t have a more elab­o­rate dessert menu avail­able, but again, this is early days. I like Fiorellino and am con­vinced it is one of the few con­cepts that can take full ad­van­tage of this fab­u­lous space.

The wheels are turn­ing a bit slowly right now, but I ap­pre­ci­ated my waiter’s en­thu­si­asm, loved see­ing Vec­chio back in ac­tion, and am con­vinced they’ll do well. And they have an in­ter­est­ing plan up their sleeve: hark­ing back to the his­tory of the lo­cale, Vec­chio told me they are soon go­ing to of­fer ro­tis­serie chicken.

“Like in the old days?” I asked Vec­chio.

“Yes,” he an­swered with a smile, “but Ital­ian style.”

PHO­TOS: ALLEN McIN­NIS

Fiorellino’s two restau­rants more or less share the same menu, which is con­cocted by chef Erik Man­drac­chia and is text­book Ital­ian with a cre­ative touch.

Fiorellino’s long ban­quettes are ideal for fam­i­lies and groups look­ing for a cre­ative twist on clas­sic Ital­ian.

But­ter­nut squash-filled ag­nolotti is topped with thin sheets of ri­cotta salata and wilted dan­de­lion greens.

Flavours are deftly bal­anced in a dish fea­tur­ing hot-pink half-moons of pasta, and red and gold beets paired with a pis­ta­chio pesto.

Meaty king mush­rooms are sliced pa­per thin in a win­ning ap­pe­tizer.

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