The weather outside was frightful, with more of the same to come, and slogging through the snowdrifts to a restaurant wasn't appealing.
My alternative, during one blustery but bearable break in the brutal cold, was to brave the drifts and the ruts to stock up on enough Italian goodies to tide me over several days, snuggly and smugly, in the warmth and comfort of my own home.
I chose De Luca's, partly for its one-stop shopping, offering not just groceries, but also its treasure trove of delectables -- Italian cured meats, top-quality fresh meats, a superb selection of cheeses, a bakery and a wine store (via a separate entrance). There's a homey café on the second floor where you can have a delicious pizza slice for $3.75, or all-you-can-eat pasta for $10.95, but the reasons for my visit were on the main floor, particularly the tavola calda, where ready-to-eat daily specials are sold for takeout, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and until 8 p.m. on Fridays.
The butcher shop makes a variety of terrific sausages, and one of them usually makes it onto the tavola calda -- on my visit it was the fabulous chicken sausage, shorter and plumper than most, very juicy, non-greasy and mildly but fragrantly seasoned. If it isn't on the tavola on your visit, I'd suggest buying some from the meat section and grilling it yourself.
The selection varies from day to day but usually includes a few chicken preparations -- ours was the juicy chicken legs or thighs diavola, which were slightly nippy with Spanish paprika and red pepper flakes. We also had meaty ribs, dry-rubbed and intriguingly seasoned with harissa, lemon and mint -- more glazed than sauced, and with more than a bite of chili.
Some days there might be lamb stew, but on our visit it was slices of roast lamb -- the only disappointment. The flavour was good, but our slices were mostly bone with very little meat, and I'd suggest buying it only if you can be sure you're getting enough of the meat.
Sadly, I missed my favourite meatloaf (it had been available on the previous day), but I did get rotini baked with mozzarella and Parmesan, a minimal amount of light tomato sauce and slices of spicy sausage, as well as little chicken nests rolled with ricotta, muffin-like veggie burgers of brown and wild rice and chickpeas, and a quinoa salad dotted with halved cherry tomatoes and bits of red and orange peppers. There was even a delicious Italian chili of big white beans with hot sausage, and enough chili to bite back.
The chicken diavola is available every day; at other times there might be chicken in white wine, chicken or veal parmigiana, one of the house-made sausages, eggplant rolls with ricotta, polenta with a tomato-mushroom topping, roasted potatoes with rosemary, or a roasted potato salad with pancetta. Most of the meat prices are by weight, ranging from $1.99 to $3.29 per 100 grams.
The bakery (in an adjoining room) offers a large choice of breads -- my favourites are the dense, crusty calabrese ($3.99 large) and the cheese, onion and herb-dotted fergasa ($4.99).
And to end with, one of the beautiful pastries -- crisp cannoli with a choice of four fillings (lemon was my favourite), a horn filled with either chocolate or lemon cream fillings or, for a lighter finish, the Pear William -- a poached pear glazed in a liqueur.
During an earlier break in the weather I'd made it to Lakomka, in this case for the eastern European specialties. It is primarily a bakery, with a variety of excellent breads, notable among them garlic bread and a dark Russian rye. Even more notable are the pastries, some elaborate and rich -- the Kiev, for instance, of meringue and butter cream, and the Night and Day of cream-filled layers of chocolate and white sour cream dough.
But for more specifically eastern European pastries, don't miss the flaky apple strudel with bits of walnuts and raisins and the terrific fruit-filled hamantashen pastries ($1.49 to $3.29). Any of them can be sampled, with coffee, at the one little table in the corner.
But for other kinds of sustenance, check the contents of the cooler, the freezer and the countertops. There are big and quite marvellous meat-filled perishkies ($1.29 each), flaky meat-filled cheburek triangles ($2.79 each) and blini rolled with meat, mushrooms or cottage cheese ($1.45 each).
There's a great beet borscht, one of the city's better potato salads and a sweet-and-sour cabbage salad that turns out to be a superior coleslaw. These days they make it to order only, but if you share my taste for kholodetz (think Ukrainian studenetz, but lighter) -- a glorious, garlicky aspic with shreds of meat and a hard-boiled egg in the middle -- they will make it on advance order. Also made to order are the pork-stuffed potato pancakes I loved on a previous visit, as well as several other Russian specialties.
But the perogies are always on hand, usually frozen but made daily and among the best I can remember -- tender-skinned and plump with sauerkraut, mushrooms, cottage cheese or a great cheddar and potato filling ($7.45 for two dozen). Also on hand, also frozen, are the excellent Siberian pelmeni, little hat-shaped dumplings filled with pork or chicken -- good with sour cream but (for my taste) at their best with melted butter and a sprinkling of vinegar ($8.99 per kilogram). Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.