You wouldn't think Carbone's would be hard to find on that relatively barren stretch of Taylor, but on my first try I drove right by it. Not because Taylor has the profusion of strip malls that hide the addresses on Pembina, but because Carbone's is one of the few operating units in a mostly unfinished strip mall, dominated by the raw woods of ongoing construction. Nor is it helped by a restaurant sign that is dark and hard to read from the road.
The decor is streamlined and pleasant, with a collage of various cities adding colour to the otherwise muted background (the noise level isn't muted, though). There are 45 seats at tables, another 15 at the bar, and a private dining room in the rear that is reserved for a minimum of eight, but can seat up to 45.
The menu lists only a few items, and not one of them is pasta. Pizzas are the stars here, baked in a huge coal-fired oven which is the restaurant's only source of heat -- and the only one in the city, it's said. The theory is that baking at a minimum of 800 F (about twice the energy of wood-burning ovens) means the thin crusts are cooked in less than three minutes, which avoids the dryness that sometimes afflicts thin crusts.
And the results are impressive -- crusts that are tender, flavourful and, although crisp, pliable enough to be folded. Toppings are added with restraint, but they are top quality. I was particularly impressed by the prosciutto, which was silkier, moister and less salty than most. The Peppino is downright elegant, lightly spread with a tasty tomato sauce and mozzarella, and finished after baking with that fine prosciutto and a final flurry of arugula. I also liked the sausage, ham and mushrooms on the Tyrol, and would have liked them even more if the amount of topping hadn't crossed the line from restraint to skimpy. Combination toppings cost $16.25 for 12 inches, $19.25 for 16 inches. The basic margherita of tomato sauce, mozzarella, olive oil and basil is $11.95 for 12 inches, $14.95 for 16 inches, with extra toppings $1.50 and $2.50 respectively.
There are also four panini, filled with many of the same ingredients as the pizzas and mostly good, with the exception of turkey that tasted as though it had come from a package. For non-carnivores there's a delicious roasted veggie filling (all $7.95). An occasional flaw was thick dough slices that overwhelmed the fillings and, in some cases, were pale and soft from under-baking.
Not to be missed are the guilt-free chicken wings -- meaty little nuggets that weren't breaded or fried, just simply seasoned and baked in that coal-burning oven to a wonderfully juicy, flavourful state, and served with caramelized onions -- not cheap at 10 pieces for $9.50, 20 for $17.95, but quite wonderful. The caprese salad is also worth a try, made with ripe tomatoes, particularly good mozzarella, olive oil and a sprinkling of basil ($9.75/ $11.55).
Desserts are minimal -- a roasted banana spread with nutella, gelati or a pannetone-based tiramisu which was rich with cream instead of mascarpone. The wine list is well selected, with several available by the glass, and there's also a wide choice of beer and spirits. You can even have an ounce of 15-year-old Glenfiddich for $7. Service is young, friendly and enthusiastic, but sometimes -- given the short cooking times in that miraculous oven -- surprisingly slow.
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Unburger is basically a one-trick pony with variations on the trick -- a burger, albeit not always of beef. And when it comes to beef I've always felt a certain amount of fat was necessary for moistness and flavour, but although Unburger's beef is extra-lean, it is also fresh, local and hormone-free. In fact I was almost converted to extra-lean by the first one I tried -- a thick, juicy and very flavourful patty, topped by particularly good bacon and Bothwell cheddar. And if not all subsequent samplings lived up to that one, all were at the very least good.
Prices range from $7.25, for a beef burger with cheddar, lettuce, tomato and herb-mayo, to $9.75 for the Drunken Aussie: all the above plus bacon, beets and a slice of pineapple topped by a perfectly fried egg. Sounds odd, I know, but delicious.
Other toppings are tapenade, feta, cucumber and lemon-oregano yogurt or blue cheese with chipotle aioli. There's also sliced, marinated chicken breast -- its slight dryness offset by the sampled pesto aioli and roasted red peppers -- and good veggie choices in the falafel patty with banana pepper salsa and lemony yogurt, or the sautéed portobello with blue cheese and herbed mayo.
The ciabatta buns and slices of multi-grain bread are flavourful and sturdy enough to hold the ingredients. The Asian slaw of slivered raw vegetables came in a dressing that tasted only of vinegar, but both the potato ($3) and yam fries ($4) were terrific. Oddly, although there are beers and a few wines, there's no coffee or tea. The only alternatives are juices or Coca-Cola, which comes in an endearingly old-fashioned bottle.
The sleek, spare setting is dazzlingly white, with huge windows overlooking Stradbrook Avenue, the only splash of colour in the scarlet cords that dangle from retro versions of incandescent light bulbs. Service is charming and helpful, and the food is brought to your table, but you order from a wallboard menu that is very near the entrance, an awkward setup that can lead to a traffic jam.
- Carbone Coal Fired Pizza, 1580 Taylor Ave., 488-2554
- Unburger, 472 Stradbrook Ave., 888-1001
To see the location of these restaurants as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.