60 rue St-Jacques
8 1/2 out of 10
Montreal has an authentic Italian cafe outside of Little Italy! It's not touristy, it's not romantic, it has traditional Emilia-Romagna piadine and ciaccini sandwiches, possibly the city's best gelato, and most importantly, it shows the World Cup games on a big screen. Nobody seems to know about this place, but there's a huge breakfast menu, $10 lunch deals of a main dish (best to go with the day's sandwich option) and soup or dessert, antipasti platters to snack on, tons of variations on the quintessential Italian soda, and it's licensed, all of which means it deserves to be very successful. Even if you don't cheer for the Azzurri, this is a downtown Montreal hidden gem.
The owner of Romagna Caffe is Italian. His wife, the cook and pastry chef, is French. She did, however, study pastry in Italy. How can her baking possibly get any better when both of these countries are involved? Oh, and they cater, so all of her desserts can be ordered, even if they don't appear in the Cafe often enough to suit your sweet tooth...fortunately, there's always gelato and Italian soda.
So there are a few pages of breakfast options ranging from tons of omelets, to plates of eggs with toast and pork in its various forms. Nothing over $10, most things much less. There's also a very, very nice Italian espresso machine and all the options that go along with that. Then there are about three pages of lunch options including panini (which just means "sandwiches" in Italian), piadine and ciaccini. The latter two are traditional flatbreads from Emilia-Romagna. The mortadella sausage in the ciaccino pictured below also comes from that region of Northern Italy.. It's my dream to have a World Cup cinq a sept upstairs in the reception area that overlooks the rest of the cafe (Unfortunately I do not want to have this 5 a 7 from 10am to noon, or even 2:30 to 4:30). They have a special menu of platters of antipasti - so many kinds of marinated vegetables and the traditional cheeses and cured, smoked and aged meats that make Romagna famous. Prosciutto di parma and real parmesan cheese.
Really, the paper World Cup schedules as place settings tip you off that this would be a good place to come to watch the games. The soup is not the focus of this picture...even if I should be getting to the point about the $10 lunch deal being so great...
A home-made soup (broth from scratch) starts the meal. The vegetables were frozen and it really wasn't that amazing a minestrone, but at least it was good for me. Vegetables counter-balanced the gelato that was to come. Really you just want to come here for the flatbread and gelato. Piadina is unleavened bread (yeast-free) that's traditionally cooked on a terracotta pan (called a "testo") and made of flour, water, salt, baking soda (to replace the yeast) and lard. I didn't want to know if Romagna Caffe's version was made with lard, but it definitely had an extra ingredient - sugar.I tell you it's addictive, even if the filling of seafood (mostly imitation crabmeat) and too much sweet mayonnaise weren't spectacular.
On another trip I tried the Kamouraska lamb piadina with mint and butter ($8.95 for just the sandwich. That's why the lunch deal is so good) that melted onto the inside of the warm bread (of course it's heated). I liked it more than the seafood, but the bread was just as incredible. I couldn't believe it was only $8 for Kamouraska lamb. Sure, it was only a small portion of actual meat, and the meat was pretty dry, like incredibly thin pieces of leftover roast, but with the butter and the tiny, tiny bit of mint it was pretty satisfying. I can't really complain when I pay $8 for lamb on home-made bread.
I keep wishing I'd tried the Soda Verte. It's a mix of lemonade with kiwi, pistachio and mint- flavoured syrups ($4.95). You can also get a less expensive treat of grenadine, mint and water for $2.00. Another interesting option is the Snow Ball - a mix of lemonade with coconut, lemon and curacao (the syrup, not the liquor).
Or just come for gelato, which is served beautifully in giant glass goblets. You can get specialty combinations like traditional affogato (a shot of espresso poured over, "drowning", your choice of gelato. Go with chocolate or something rich), or just get a few scoops of your favourite options. It's all home-made, and you could get lucky and find a little bit of miraculous limoncello-flavoured gelato that is so much better than a lemon sorbet. If I could find limoncello in Montreal at the SAQ I would be a happy, happy person. I have the best memory of sitting in a restaurant with a bottle of limoncello in front me that the server had placed there. He didn't say what it was doing there, since I hadn't asked for it, and he hadn't poured it for me (though he had given me a glass), but I'd already payed the bill, so I figured it was a "drink your fill" kind of idea. Tourists...Gelato is not ice cream. It's not haagen-daaz. The method of making gelato actually results in a denser, more flavourful milk (sometimes cream, or a mix of the two) since less air is whipped into it. The gelato machine that's used at Romagna Cafe is from Italy, of course, and is very much earning its keep. It's incredible how thick and creamy milk can be. I can't even recommend one flavour over another because they were all so good. You can definitely have a taste before you decide anyway. Branching out to the Italian traditional flavours like hazelnut is a very good idea, but the papaya, lemon, and limoncello that accompany it in the picture above are all good choices.
This cafe used to be on Crescent but they moved to the Old Port for more space. Now they have bad signage and probably aren't doing great business because it's just off the heavy tourist foot traffic area. It doesn't look like a cute place to have lunch, landing somewhere between a cafeteria-style look and a bar, but it's full table-service (for a more traditional Italian bar experience try Montallegro at 1991 rue Belanger, east of Papineau). If you prefer, you can just have a coffee at the bar, and chat with the friendly baker, but tourists would probably walk on by this place without much of a second glance. So don't judge this place by looking in the window. I'm sharing this gem with you so Romagna Cafe can be more successful. For now it's a perfect little hole in the wall that deserves to be a great success. An affordable, authentic Italian cafe in the Old Port. Please go eat piadine and gelato.
Expect To Pay: $13 for a piadina and gelato, including tax and tip
Hours:Open early for breakfast, but not open late.