There is a line in the "Our Story" section of Cafe Carlo's new website that mentions the chic, 50-seat restaurant's "rummage sale beginnings."
The phrase is a gentle poke at a Toronto-based food critic who, weeks after Cafe Carlo opened for business, described the decor there as looking like it came from a flea market.
"She probably wasn't too far off," says Joel Boulet, who started at Cafe Carlo as a server on day one and graduated to part-owner about 12 years ago. "If memory serves, nothing in here was new. It was all second-hand equipment and throwaways slapped together, along with a fresh coat of paint."
Boulet says founder Duncan Grant's no-frills approach to haute cuisine was one of the key reasons he applied for a job there in the first place.
"The original idea behind Cafe Carlo was it was going to be just about the food, without the white tablecloths, etc. The notion of serving good food in a relaxed setting really appealed to me. Still does."
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Café Carlo, located at 243 Lilac St., started life as Pasta Presto, a take-out deli specializing in house-made pastas and sauces. For a couple of years, Pasta Presto, also owned and operated by Grant, shared space with a toy store. Visitors would enter through a common door and turn left if they wanted a block of cheese, right if they wanted blocks.
After the toy store closed, Grant took over the vacant area. He added a few tables and chairs to the mix and began serving quickie selections like pizza-by-the-slice.
Grant converted Pasta Presto into Cafe Carlo in November 1989, a time when the Corydon area was just beginning to gain a reputation as Winnipeg's Little Italy district.
Almost 25 years later, Boulet and Grant still get first-time customers who show up expecting wax candles in Chianti bottles and That's Amore on the CD player.
"We have struggled a bit with the perception that we're an Italian restaurant," Boulet admits, choosing instead to brand his locale as a "Canadian neighbourhood bistro." "Part of it, I guess, is where we're situated. And part of it is the name."
About that: during the Pasta Presto days, all of the people working there took on Italian pseudonyms, including the owner, who was dubbed Carlo by his staff.
Nowadays, Boulet and his wife Karlene handle the day-to-day affairs at Café Carlo while Grant/Carlo is kept busy running his two other operations -- Bonfire Bistro on Corydon Avenue and Burrito del Rio Taqueria in Osborne Village.
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Not unlike Hy's and its porterhouses or the Silver Heights and its ribs, Cafe Carlo hangs its hat on a dish Free Press critic Marion Warhaft has referred to as "luscious and quite irresistible."
"By far, fett chili is the single most popular thing we make," Boulet says, guesstimating the entrée accounts for 33 per cent of his sales. "It's gotten to the point where I know people are going to order it whenever they sit down and don't reach for a menu."
Fett chili ($23) is fettuccine with chicken, chorizo and roasted peppers, topped with cashews and smothered in a chili-flavoured cream sauce. It was introduced as a one-off special about 20 years ago but quickly took on a life of its own -- so much so that Boulet used to shake his head on nights when the kitchen was swamped with order after order of fett chili.
"It almost got to the point where I was like, 'Again? Really? Are you sure you don't want to try something else?' But after a while I learned to embrace it because it's simply one of those comfort-type foods that makes people happy."
NHL legend Teemu Selanne used to be a fan, Boulet says, but actor Samuel L. Jackson will never know what he missed. The Django Unchained star reserved a table at Cafe Carlo last month when he was in Winnipeg filming Reasonable Doubt, but was forced to cancel his booking at the last minute.)
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Terry Lacosse owns Gallery Lacosse, an art gallery and custom-framing store a few doors down from Cafe Carlo.
At this time last year, Lacosse was thinking about retirement. He knew the walls at Cafe Carlo had always been a showcase for Canadian artists so, as a tribute to the part of town he'd called home for nine years, Lacosse asked Boulet if he'd be interested in exhibiting some works that depicted the Corydon-Lilac area.
Boulet thought it was a great idea.
After the paintings had been on the walls for a couple of months, Lacosse asked Boulet when he should "get his crap" out of there. Boulet laughed and said there was no rush, and why not leave it up a while longer?
Weeks later, Lacosse told Boulet he had enjoyed coming up with a theme for the restaurant's walls. He also said he was putting off retirement for a while, and would be happy to do it again.
Early last month, Lacosse put the finishing touches on his second show at Cafe Carlo -- a collection of summer-themed oils.
"I thought it would be nice if you were inside having dinner in January or February, and you could look up and see a beach or lake scene, as opposed to the cold and snow outside," Lacosse says.
As for that saying about good fences making good neighbours -- don't believe it. Ever since Lacosse's paintings began gracing the walls at Cafe Carlo, there has been a measurable increase in traffic at Lacosse's gallery.
"That's the nice thing about this street; we all support each other in one way or another. Joel shops here, I eat there, we both go to the grocery store or the jeweler's. It's a real community," Lacosse says, before recommending the cannelloni. (In case you're wondering, the most expensive lunch at Cafe Carlo topped out at just over 10 grand. A few years ago, a woman from Texas spent $10,000 on a painting by New Brunswick artist Andrew Giffen, after she was done with her chicken club.)