International Café had been passed on by 3 families since its opening in 1968. After so many years of operations and still standing strong on St-Laurent at Little Italy, they must be doing something right.
Marco Arcaro, Chef of Café International, did not deviate from International Café success and has maintained the traditional Italian cuisine flawlessly.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marco. I remembered being surprise at his His laid back and down-to-earth yet passionate character was emitted throughout the conversation. I learned so much about cooking techniques and the food industry.
But does his knowledge actually transfer to his actual cooking?
We sat down by the window. Seating on the patio is available, but Mr.Butter and I biked our way up here and wanted a break from the sun (to prepare some heavy carbs consumption, of course).
I looked at the menu and then at the name of the restaurant. The name can be misleading. Café International. It is not exactly a coffee shop, but it does serve coffee and pastries. It is more a trattoria. And it is nothing international. It serves Italian food.
And then I looked out the window and I see an Italian restaurant right across the street established in 1960. These 2 restaurants must have been feuding for 5 decades now.
We were in no hurry and started off with a café latte. And Marco knew it so well that he brought some almond cookies, butter cookies and angel cake to pair with the lattes. These are all baked in-house. Café International takes pride in making from scratch. The butter cookies are dangerous. They were so smooth and buttery. Taken by surprise, I enjoyed the angel cake the most. I think Chinese sponge cake may have ruined my opinion on sponge cake that I already established that I would not like the angel cake. The texture was light and a bit moist, just like a sponge slightly damped by light rain. Unlike Chinese sponge cake which is overpowered by egg flavor, this angel cake has a faint but noticeable citrus flavor.
The calamari has the option to be fried or grilled. As a loyal reader of my blog, the answer is quite obvious. I opted for grilled. The results were quite unexpected! I felt I was having ceviche. The calamari was borderline cooked, giving a very smooth yet dense texture. It was almost like slurping on rice noodles. I think it would pair so well with cold soba noodles. A perfect pair for summer heat.
This cold platter is actually my favorite meal of the day. The prosciutto was really remarkable and memorable. This too is cured in-house and it is aged for 18 months! Can you imagine that? That is a whooping year and a half. It has much more body than the commercial prosciutto. Marco explained to me (and hopefully I got it right) that commercial ones are usually heavily salted to accelerate the curing process. And we should not forget the salad on the platter. The vinaigrette really opened up my appetite. I appreciate when restaurants give respect to the salads on the side. It just shows how each element on the plate is meaningful to the chef.
This pizza actually was inspired from another restaurant that Marco really loved. Pistachio and mortadella, who would have thought? Again, the mortadella is cured in house. You see the theme here. This pizza is not on their menu, but does show up on their special weekly. So when you do see it, order it. It is quite unique. For our tasting experience, Marco actually had made the pizza smaller than the original size. I saw the actual pizza from other customers’ table and it is more than enough for one person.
At this point, my stomach was at 70% full (Note: I biked more than 20 km to arrive here!). So, I warned Marco that the portion had to be downsized more. And this is why this tiny carbonara is so cutely presented. By the looks of it, I would not have known this was carbonara if Marco did not tell me. I realized how I am unfamiliar to Italian cuisine. I was so accustomed to heavily creamed carbonara that it becomes heavy to eat mid way through. This carbonara was perfect. The pancetta and the spaghetti are once more made in house. I can imagine how labor intensive is the kitchen. I could right away taste that the spaghetti is unusual. It has a rougher and unprocessed texture. When I commented on it, Marco explained that it is made with semolina flour. Things I learned from him!
I am very fond of risotto, but many restaurants had disappointed me. When I told Marco about this, he took it as a challenge and was eager to receive any constructive criticism. I anxiously tasted the mushroom risotto and assessed it silently (with a bit of sweats too). I like my risotto fluffy but still textured, almost like a Japanese rice grain but a little bit harder. This risotto was creamy, but the rice was missing something. I told Marco that I would have liked it 1-2 minutes less. But when I thought more about it, I don’t think it had to do with the cooking time. I think it might have to do with the rice grain used. I could be wrong, but I wished I had asked what type of rice grain was used. Another thing that I would definitely change is the presentation of dish. Risotto on a flat plate is not very appetizing.
I would like to thank the hospitality of Marco. If I could, I would invite you to visit Café International only when Marco is working…but hey, to do that, you would have to sneak in the kitchen. This experience really prompts me to learn more about Italian cuisine. Marco really helped me to appreciate it in a whole new level.
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