Rue de la Commune often feels like a bargaining chip. Perhaps if we offer it up to the throngs of tourists who come year-round to feel that vague “European” quality people love to label the city with, then we get to keep Mile End and St-Henri for ourselves. For as long as I have been dining out in the city, the Old Port has been reserved for essentially two types of diners: those after the highest end of fine dining, and those who fall prey to the MTLàTABLE tourist-traps. Luckily for us, more and more good restaurants are opening up and helping to reclaim the neighbourhood for the locals.
Caffè Un Po’ Di Più is one that’s leading the charge, and might just be the best argument to venture to the Old Port (even when your aunt isn’t visiting). The latest installment by Dyan Soloman and Eric Girard — the seemingly unstoppable duo behind Olive + Gourmando and Foxy — is an ingredient-forward Italian bistro that operates non-stop from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. In the kitchen Lawrence alumni Jess Malette (sous-chef) and Mel Gervais (pastry chef) lend support to head chef Nick Giambattisto (formerly of Joe Beef).
The space is beautifully appointed and just a sight to behold in terms of design, although what else could be expected of the phenomenal interior designer Zébulon Perron, who’s graced a number of spectacularly designed restaurants with his Midas touch. It’s got Italian-modern light fixtures and that bold and vibrant colouring we all love right now, but the teal, burgundy and wood tones aren’t in your face. Walking into this place is transformative. You step off the busy water-facing street and immediately you’re transported somewhere else, like stepping into a dream you had where you lived a beautiful life in Italy.
I arrived at 11 a.m. for an attempt to experience the café aspect and let it bleed naturally into a light lunch. If you find yourself with the time to spare, I would recommend doing the same; it’s a great way to experience both sides of what the restaurant offers. This is a uniquely Italian affair, but it’s also a sort of loose interpretation of Italian, with items like a tuna salad that really reads like a salade Niçoise, only using Italian ingredients, and a deli sandwich representing the Italian-American side of things.
We started our meal, given the time of day, a bit backwards from the normal order of things — with coffee and dessert. A cortado to begin, and to accompany an olive oil cake with honey whipped cream and citrus — a beautiful dish and a testament to good cooking. The crust of the cake is firm and delightfully sticky and gives way lovingly to reveal at its centre a moist but light cake flecked with citrus rind whose bitterness marries beautifully with the olive oil in the cake offsetting the honey and candied fruit on which the honey cream is drizzled. Overall a harmonious balance of sweetness, bitterness and acidity.
With a myriad of snacks on the menu, it can be difficult to choose what to have next. Occasionally, however, indecision can be an ally, especially when a Torre is on the menu. Served in a three-tiered cake stand, the presentation is beautiful. The Torre is a bit of everything, each tier offering delicate and sumptuous snacks to graze upon while sipping a cocktail. In the top tier are a dozen or so thin slices of salami, then down a tier a few wedges of crustless tuna sandwiches speckled with herbs and cornichons alongside jammy boiled eggs draped with Cantabrian anchovies and a good measure of olive oil. In the bottom tier is a bowl of artichoke, olive and marinated eggplant antipasti and some spiced nuts for good measure. To drink, have a spritz. Although the bar offers spritzes five different ways, I recommend the bitter and herbal Nardini MezzoeMezzo, served with a twist of orange and god-damned olive, the way it was meant to be served.
Next, the Pinzimonio. Cucumber, carrots and radishes stand upright in a chunky purée of eggplant, walnut and garlic, artfully split to allow a spicy red oil to seep through and plated in an ornate glass coupe — class all the way. The flavours are reminiscent of baba ganouj but the fresh acidity and bite of the oil add a complexity to the dish that makes it stand apart from other eggplant dips. Fresh and light yet charged with flavour, this is the must-order vegetable dish for the table.
To finish, we order Nicky’s sub, and damn if the sandwich wasn’t the highlight of the meal. I didn’t want it to be, honestly; I don’t want to be a sandwich pusher, but this is a perfect sub. Submarine bread is sliced horizontally along the equator and provolone, capicola, ham and finocchiona are laid across both halves of the sandwich and then stuffed with shredded iceberg lettuce tossed in “Italian” dressing and set in the centre of the sandwich so the meat and cheese horseshoe around the lettuce. A pro-move and the sign of a good deli-sandwich, it guarantees some of every ingredient in each bite. They should just open a deli next door, sell only this sandwich and retire happy and rich.
Along with a mostly natural and biodynamic (and fully Italian) wine list, Un Po’ Di Più is a very welcomed addition to my new repertoire of go-to spots, and I for one am happy to have a new reason to head down to the Old Port. It’s got all the makings of something great: owners with precedent, a kitchen staff stacked with talent, a menu as strong as it is humble — and shit — look at the place, it’s gorgeous. Tourists, consider this your notice: you can keep the Ferris wheel, Marché Bonsecours and any busker you want — Un Po’ Di Più is for us. ■
3 de la Commune E.