Il Mulino bottega covone family montreal

The night the Covone family revived their beloved old-school restaurant Il Mulino at Bottega

Bottega chefs Chris Menard and David Zaccardi were joined by Mon Lapin’s Marc-Olivier Frappier to revisit a very particular culinary vibe.

I have never been to Il Mulino. The Covone family’s first, and possibly most beloved, restaurant closed in 2010 — about eight months after I moved to the city. I have, however, had the great pleasure of dining at all the family’s subsequent restaurants. Hostaria (now closed, too), which opened in the same locale following the closing of Il Mulino, was one of my very favourite restaurants in the city. The simple and sophisticated dining room combined with Massimo Covone’s professional service and genuine hospitality embodied so much of what I love about restaurants. The food, for its part, was invariably delicious and cooked with great care. The wines were well-chosen and properly priced and the experience was always polished but genuinely comfortable. San Gennaro, the pizza al taglio passion project of Fabrizio Covone, is one of my regular haunts. To me, it is perfect.

That leaves Bottega, which opened in 2006 — four years before Il Mulino would close. In its 18 years, Bottega has established itself as the blueprint for contemporary Neapolitan pizzas in town. The many places we love, including Elena, Gema and Rita, for example, owe something to the Covones’ Little Italy institution. Their approach to hospitality and the restaurants they created have had an enduring impact on our city’s dining culture, sometimes in ways I wouldn’t have expected. 

In the last week of April, Il Mulino was resurrected — at least temporarily. For two exclusive nights, Bottega was transformed into the family’s first and most influential restaurant and served some of the classic dishes by Giovanna Covone, the matriarch of the family and long-time chef. Today, Giovanna is no longer in the kitchen, though she was present in the dining room to greet and embrace old friends and loyal customers. In her place were Chris Menard (Bottega), David Zaccardi (Bottega Laval) and Marc-Olivier Frappier of Vin Mon Lapin. Frappier, I came to learn, spent the early days of his career (in between his apprenticeships in Italy) working in the kitchen at Il Mulino — an experience that is incredibly meaningful to him and his career. Today, the restaurant he owns with his wife across the street from Bottega is considered the best in Canada. 

The night the Covone family revived their beloved old-school restaurant Il Mulino at Bottega

As we settle into our seats, the maître d’hôtel appears with a bottle in hand, “a little gift to celebrate the occasion” he says, while pouring a glass of Franciacorta (Italy’s answer to Champagne). It’s the evening’s first moment of unexpected generosity but certainly not the last. With my aperitivo in hand, I take a look around the room. It’s buzzing — the crowd is a mix of well-dressed locals ranging from 20-somethings to folks well into their 70s. People know each other here. It’s got the vibe of a wedding or family reunion — joyous and celebratory. The evening was emotional in a way I didn’t expect it to be. It was like I was party to an imagined fantasy — “What would I eat if I could have dinner at Il Mulino one last time?” Around me, bottles of Barolo from Rinaldi and Cappelano are opened, and a two-top next to me orders a bottle of Initial from legendary Champagne producer Jacques Selosse — under normal circumstances that would feel especially extravagant, but tonight is special. Tomorrow, there will never be another opportunity to dine at Il Mulino again. In that sense, the evening is bittersweet — a fond farewell. So why not drink the good stuff?

I never met Aniello Covone — the family patriarch, he tragically passed away in 2014. But from the few stories I’ve heard, his vision and dedication to the craft of restauration is carried on in large part by his sons. After sitting down at our table, we were presented with a handwritten menu. Later in the evening, I was informed it was his habit to handwrite Il Mulino’s menu every day. If a single ingredient changed — he’d rewrite the whole thing. The menu for this particular evening was written by his youngest son Massimo, whose handwriting, I’m told, is the spitting image of his father’s. It’s a fixed menu with four courses and six dishes — and not a pasta among them.

Bubbled focaccia, red and white (meaning with tomato sauce and without) is baked to order in the wood-fired oven and brought piping hot to the table. As an extra touch, the bread is served with olive oil from legendary Abruzzese wine producer Valentini. Bright green with herbal notes and a bracing bite, it’s a perfect complement to the bread. Shortly thereafter, a trio of grilled octopus with endives, artichokes alla Romana and funghi misti (mixed mushrooms) arrives. The octopus is beautifully grilled and tender. Cut into bite-sized morsels, they nest with cherry tomatoes, parsley, and red onion in the cradle of an endive leaf. Classic. The Roman artichokes, with good olive oil and mint, are tasty but the chokes themselves are a bit woody. The funghi misti is smokey, rich, and delicious. Paired with a glass of crisp and aromatic Bianco Secco (mostly Garganega) from Veneto’s Quintarelli, it is a near-perfect start to the meal.

The service, which is provided by the team from Bottega, is impeccable. Despite restaurants largely bouncing back from pandemic-era staff issues (though not entirely resolved), service remains a low point when dining out lately. Not here. There’s an established culture and standard of service at a Covone restaurant. It’s warm, prompt and professional. It’s lovingly familiar to regular guests and respectfully cordial to first-time guests. Here, the dining experience is about the customer and not about the restaurant. 

The next course, my favourite of the night, was a pear and gorgonzola risotto. A la carte, I would never order this. In fact, it sounds kind of bad. Sure, pear and blue cheese is a tried and true combo — but as a risotto and the course before meat? I don’t know. How wrong I was. A plate of perfectly al dente risotto, ribboned with blue lines from the melted gorgonzola, is topped with three handsome chunks of poached pear. It is both subtle and pungent, sweet and savoury. Overall, it’s quite light and perplexingly delicious and has me eagerly returning for another spoonful. The somewhat unusual pairing of Nerello Mascalese Rosato, from Sicilian producer Bonavita, was excellent and masterfully matched the funk and fruit of the dish. 

We finished the meal with a not-often-seen classic: roast goat with polenta and rapini. Sure, roast lamb and roast pork — rabbit even — you see those all the time. Goat is special and something I enjoy eating very much. The meat was expertly roasted, tender to the fork and full of flavour, without being gamey. A vintage touch was added by triangles of grilled polenta — very ’90s — and the rapini was as good and garlicky as you’d hope to get from Nonna. What else to drink than a glass of Barolo? An unsurprisingly good match.

The final dish, a “nougat” gelato with Amarena cherries, was perfect. Sweet and nutty with a texture that oscillates from silky to coarse with the swipe of the spoon, it is as classic an Italian dessert as you could wish for. And another small gift: a glass of Barolo Chinato. Its spiced profile with notes of stewed fruits worked well against the nuts and even better with those sticky-sweet cherries. A lovely end to a lovely meal.

I left dinner with a singular sentiment: “This is what I want from all my dining experiences.” That is to say, I want to be treated with warmth and kindness, to be served with professionalism and generosity. I want to eat well and leave full. I want to drink good wines served by people with knowledge. What is the point of dining out, after all? Is it not an opportunity to be served? To indulge? In a time where the cost of dining has never been higher, generosity and satisfaction should be amongst the most important aspects of a night out.

In her 2009 review of Il Mulino, then-Gazette food critic Lesley Chesterman wrote, “At the perfect restaurant dinner, you always get the sense the staff was pleased to serve you and not the other way around. You exit feeling pampered, happy and so darn lucky to have experienced it all. That’s exactly how I felt after a recent meal at Il Mulino.” Though I don’t always agree with Chesterman’s views, on this I could not agree more. ■

For more on Bottega, please visit their website.

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