Cibo Calgary – Great Italian on 17th
Genuine. It’s an overused word, kind of like “organic”, “natural” or “Applewood smoked”, one of those words you gloss over in advertising because it doesn’t mean much. But I can’t think of a better way to describe our experience visiting Cibo, a hidden gem of a place along 17th Avenue near 9th Street SW in Calgary. And Janine Workman – our host at lunch there, whose job as Marketing Manager for Cibo – understandably winced a bit at the term “hidden gem”, because this place deserves a place in the spotlight, even in the increasingly diverse and populated Italian restaurant landscape that Calgary is becoming.
We were invited there to try Cibo’s newly-launched line of gluten free pizzas. And – full disclosure – this meal was on the house, for us. But as we sat at the bar, well before our food arrived, deep in conversation with a very attentive, intelligent and engaged group of staff, it dawned on me that this is one of those unique places where everything – not just the dishes on the menu – is focused on making you feel like you are an extraordinary person. They don’t just want you to have a good meal – they want you to remember the whole experience with the kind of fondness that you reserve for your “best meal I’ve ever eaten” occasions. Which is why it was not a surprise to hear Janine say “we love to host people here”. That’s the spirit that wraps around comfortable meals at grandma’s house, or a dinner date with your true soulmate. How do you get that at a restaurant?
Well – you have to start with the food. Cibo has decided that among everyone else they welcome with open arms, they want us in the celiac community to feel just as much a valued guest as anyone else does – so they’ve poured heart and soul into coming up with a menu that delivers amazing food that just happens to be gluten free, not because it’s a fad, or because you celiacs are expected to shut up and eat what’s available regardless of taste, texture or price – but because they want you to be delighted.
Janine said this was a bit of a balancing act for them. You see – in order to make the best delivery vehicle for some astonishingly crafted pizza toppings, you need a faultless crust – one whose taste doesn’t jump out and scare you, one whose edges are hot and crispy but whose middle lets you fold it in half and eat it as effortlessly as you do in Brooklyn or Chicago, the way pizza should be eaten. The chef at Cibo gave up his right and his pride to make everything from scratch, and uses gluten-free pizza dough made for him by Care Bakery. Yes, THAT Care Bakery – the one which supplies the best gluten-free bread to all the best restaurants who want your attention, my dear GF’ers. The right to make your own gave way to making the best possible. And oh – that chef makes up for that modesty by putting together the most amazing combinations of toppings. Close your eyes and imagine prosciutto, with radicchio and arugula so fresh they haven’t had time to become the least bit bitter, wreathed in caramelized sweet onion and an accent of fig jam, topped with grated Grana Padano cheese. Or Wild Boar Bacon (the kind made by the good folks up north at Hog Wild), with fennel salami, tiny slivers of smoked pancetta (that’s bacon the way God intended it to be), and house-made sausage redolent with fresh herbs. That’s what we had. That’s just two of the eleven choices on the new GF-friendly menu – only the lamb meatball pizza is off limits, because ground lamb needs more than gluten-free flour can provide to hold it together. But imagine, folks – a pizza menu where the EXCEPTION is the glutenous pizza, and the rest are all fair game. And they have two ovens, and two separate prep stations. Yes, there’s flour around – but these folks watch their processes like a hawk. And you can watch them too – the kitchen is in plain sight from the tables spread generously around the vast space.
We talked, a lot, over lunch, about what it’s like to take your life (well, at least your gut) in your hands every time you go out to eat. Janine knows – she’s celiac too. You shouldn’t HAVE to accept a huge risk. But more than that – you deserve the full breadth of taste, smell, texture, and deep satisfaction that a great meal provides. Cibo has decided that’s what they’re going to give you.
We talked about pasta, because there’s a whole pasta section on this menu as well. Their gluten-free choice is corn pasta. That’s something I normally stay away from, having had nothing but sad experiences trying to rescue rice-sized pieces of gloppy spaghetti from murky yellow water. That’s the price you pay for cut-rate corn pasta, I guess. But at Cibo – theirs comes right from Italy, where an astonishingly HUGE percentage of the population is celiac, AND wants their pasta like Nonna makes it, so they’ve figured out how to make corn pasta properly. How does Cibo manage to serve GF pasta dishes without breaking the bank? Well – a few years back, the restaurant group that Cibo is part of made an offer, and bought Lina’s Italian Market, on Centre Street North. Yup – want a guaranteed supply of Italian quality ingredients at wholesale prices? Buy the distributor.
They didn’t let us simply talk about good pasta. The chef appeared during our conversation, having whipped up a bowl of orecchiette with housemade pork sausage, slow-cooked rapini (that still kept a beautiful toothsome crunch!), slaked with garlic and Grana Padano – and all married together with a topnotch olive oil. You know you’re a valued guest when even the olive oil has to be the best available.
Now – usually this kind of quality means you need to save a couple paycheques before you make a reservation. Not here. Think about what you pay for a takeout pizza from any of those cookie cutter mass production places around town. By the time you tip the delivery guy, you’re out 45 bucks for two people. Those same pizzas we talked about a minute ago, at Cibo? Nothing over 23 dollars, my friends. And on that, even a big guy can fill up, and on the best ingredients you can find anywhere.
So, treat yourself to a genuinely good time. Go by yourself for lunch, or bring a big group for a birthday, if you like. Cibo also likes to feed people family style – let them know in advance, and you’ll get big bowlfuls to serve yourself till you’re full. Go try it out. These folks deserve a place in the mainstream. Great food, great attitude, great price, and no pretensions. No more being ashamed of your celiac label.