Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bistro bueno

Generous, old-school Italian plates are piled high; no whining about the wines

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In restaurants I always read the food menu first. I have a friend (not a wino, honestly) but the first thing she will turn to is the wine list, and if she had been with me at Santa Ana she'd have thought she'd gone to heaven. Not only are the wines well selected, but the prices are mind-boggling bargains. At least they are for Winnipeg where markups of 100 percent are pretty much the minimum, and generally much more than that. And triple markups aren't at all unusual.

There may be only one white and one red by the glass here, but the markup on the bottles more than makes up for that, with several good choices at $15 (an increasingly common price for two glasses of plonk elsewhere) and many interesting ones under $30. Especially since whatever you don't finish can be re-corked to take home. Actually, I thought I was in heaven too, with a delicious Alamos Malbec, for a mere $20, which was significantly less than twice the Liquor Commission's price of $12.03. I have to assume the other wines also have a similarly modest mark-up.

This huge strip mall in St. Vital was the last kind of place in which I would have expected such grace notes. In fact, much about the Santa Ana surprised me. It's a long narrow room -- quite dark, and small, seating only about 44. Spare too, with colour only in the huge prints of wine glasses that line one slate grey wall. Part of the opposite wall, the one that cuts off the view of the open kitchen, is a huge wine rack.

The full title is Santa Ana Pizzeria and Bistro, but more about the pizzas later. For my money the bistro menu is the best part of the operation. It's short -- just a few appetizers, a few pastas and if you want a main course you'll be limited to either salmon or chicken breast. Fortunately though, among those few items there are some delicious choices to accompany those bargain wines.

The Mediterranean shrimp starter, for instance. We counted them, and they came to an unbelievable 15 for the $10 tab -- floured, lightly seasoned, crusted with sea salt and simply delicious. Every bit as good was the Santa Ana salad of sprightly mixed greens, little nubs of asparagus (no heads, though), bits of sun dried tomatoes and shreds of parmesan in a fresh-tasting and perfectly balanced vinaigrette. It cost $6 for a more than generous single, $9 for a double.

There are two appetizers of Italian sausages, each $8. The Neapolitan comes with tomato sauce and is topped by asiago cheese. We chose the Sicilian -- a dense, spicy sausage served with roasted red peppers, parmesan and La Bomba sauce (a zippy eggplant-plus concoction usually served as antipasto). The portion was as big as some entrees, and more than enough for two as a starter.

In fact, generosity is one of the hallmarks here. Forget that current "small plate" fad -- this is old school Italian and the plates come piled high. Our sweet-fleshed salmon entree, for instance -- two thick slices that were wood-fired (like most of the food here) and turned out moist and flavourful, paired with a huge heap of linguine mixed with a variety of vegetables.

Linguine with veggies sounded as though it might be boring but it, too, was excellent, perfectly al dente and beautifully seasoned. The only other a la carte pastas are tortellini, lasagna and manicotti, with a choice of meat, tomato or roasted red pepper-mushroom-pesto sauce ($14 each). However our ravioli wasn't in the same class as the linguine, with a mere smidgen of tasteless meat enveloped in thickish pasta.

Santa Ana is under the same ownership as the Calabria Market and Wine Store, popular for, among other things, its pizzas, and in this venue there are two kinds to choose from -- wood-fired, with a thin, crisp crust (11 inches for $12) or stone-baked with a choice of thick, thin or classic widths (15 inches for $22) with multiple toppings. Basic cheese-only toppings are $12 for the stone-baked, $8 for the wood-fired.

Had the pizzas lived up to the meals there might have been an extra half-star above, but the stone-baked pies were merely passable. Our Sicilian topping (Italian sausage, capicola, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and tomato sauce) was generous but the dryish crusts lacked both taste and texture. And the wood-fired margherita was a total disappointment, with no discernible tomato sauce, just a juiceless topping of anemic tomato slices, a skimpy few shreds of bocconcini, a dusty-dry sprinkling of oregano and a few basil leaves.

For dessert we opted for one of the gelati -- from Eva's Gelato, and wonderful ($6). The only other choice is a dessert pizza topped with cinnamon sugar, marshmallow, chocolate and graham wafers, and it may well be delicious, but, I confess, I just couldn't face it (11 inches for $10). The service, on the other hand, was charming, knowledgeable, attentive and endlessly helpful.

The place bustles. I was turned down twice while trying for a Saturday night reservation several days in advance, and I'd suggest reserving your table even on a week night. 

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2011 D3

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