Chef Daniel Costa changed Edmonton's perception of Italian dining. The Edmonton-born and -raised chef's cardinal restaurant, the unflappable Corso 32, turned heads and roused palates in 2009, reminding diners that Italian cuisine far transcended the usual offerings slathered in tomato sauce and melted cheese. The dark and brooding spuntini bar Bar Bricco followed in 2013.
Years later, Chef Costa's reputation for focused consistency remains steadfast. Diners still wait weeks for reservations at Corso, and the evening crowd still clusters around Bricco's tiny bar for shaved prosciutto. Chef Costa's third-born, Uccellino (meaning, "the little bird"), opened on Jasper Avenue this spring, under the premise of casual, true-to-Italian form, dining with ample seating and a large menu. It's an ambitious endeavour that begets a test of this bird's wings.
Uccellino is grander in scale than both of its siblings combined. The two-storey room is dressed down in concrete grey and alabaster white. Muted, disc-shaped lamps hover above the bar like UFOs, illuminating shelves filled with glassware, cookbooks and bags of dried pasta. The restaurant is hopping with activity; even in the middle of the week, a gaggle of patrons waits nonchalantly by the bar, sipping bellinis and hoping for a table to open. Uccellino's "bellini of the day" ($14) sets the evening in motion in a swirl of bubbles and fresh fruit. Tonight, red plum and Prosecco conjure up a crisp and heady summer's night – an antidote for the raw November winds blowing down Jasper Avenue outside the capacious windows.
An intriguing handful of crostini are a far cry from the tomato and olive oil suspects usually found on Italo-Canadian menus. Three generous slices of Ricotta and Guanciale Crostini ($14) are piled high with a fluffy smear of house-made ricotta, and topped with unctuously crisp guanciale, peppery arugula and sweet corn. Each indulgent bite presents a slightly different ratio of ingredients, allowing every component to shine individually. Simpler Fettunta Crostini ($10) crowns toasty crostini with lustrous whipped lardo, redolent with fresh rosemary and gleaming with just a sprinkle of sea salt.
Kale Salad ($16), though its name initially conjures up images of a bowl groaning with fibrous leaves, instead presents finely shredded greens dressed liberally in olive oil, flecked with red onion, tossed with nutty kernels of crispy farro and gently blanketed with a veritable snowstorm of grated pecorino. The farro alone is a revelation, and is addictively crunchy.
Primi and secondi are simple but substantial. Maccheroni with pig's head ragu ($25) dresses toothsome and tubular noodles with a dialled-back version of a traditional ragu that swaps out copious protein for unembellished minced pork and prosciutto. Char-grilled Leg of Lamb ($32) is rustic and lovingly cleaved into rosy medallions, and is joined by a multihued hill of sautéed peppers and a garlicky puddle of eggplant purée. A buxom and meaty glass of Allegrini Valpolicella Superiore ($13/6 oz glass) washes both dishes down quite nicely.
One would be sorely remiss to leave without dessert. No tired tiramisu or Nutella besmirches Uccellino's dessert menu. Instead, an impeccably velvety Chocolate Budino ($11) – an Italian dessert falling somewhere between chocolate cake and pudding – satiates any residual need for calories. No egregious swirls of whipped cream or chocolate drizzle are present or necessary. The simplest of desserts confirms Uccellino's birthright: one of consistency, even-handedness and grace.