This new Santa Lucia is sleek, spacious and attractive, with a high-raftered ceiling, some evocative old family photographs on one wall and a mural of Venice's Rialto Bridge on the other. It's definitely a move for the better -- a far cry from the small, modest premises on Waterloo, its first city location. It's particularly inviting during daylight hours, with sunlight streaming through the big windows. For those who'd like even more sun, there's a nice sidewalk patio.
Santa Lucia is a chain, not a franchise, which means the six local outlets are individually owned. I can only compare this operation to the one on St. Mary's Road, which I reviewed two years ago -- a huge, noisy place with inconsistent food. And even with certain slip-ups, this venerable (since 1974) River Heights institution comes out ahead.
The menu is partly Greek, partly Italian and partly all over the map, with such starters as wings, nachos, escargots and jalape±o poppers. Only a few of the other light bites are Greek, but of those, the two I tried were excellent.
The calamari, for instance, were tiny and tender, with ultra-light, flaky breading, easily rivalling some of the city's best ($9.95). The Greek sampler plate was not only delicious, but also a great buy at $10.95 -- almost generous enough to double as a light lunch for two, or serve four as a starter, without skimping. The platter is prettily arranged with dolmadakia -- lemony rice-stuffed grape leaves; crisp, flavourful spinach and feta spanakopita; wedges of excellent feta; plenty of kalamata olives, some almost-ripe tomatoes and a little container of tzatziki. (Two pieces of spanakopita are available on their own for $5.95.)
Not everything was a winner, but what the kitchen did well, it did very, very well -- the above two appetizers, for example, and also the ribs, which were the best entree sampled. They weren't done Greek style, but many Greek restaurants seem to have a sure touch with any kind of ribs and these were no exception -- a huge, full rack that was tender, moist and meaty, nicely glazed (not gloppy) in a sassy-sweet barbecue sauce ($22.95).
Only four of the entrees are Greek. Of the two non-gyro options, I can recommend the souvlaki, two skewers of tender, nicely marinated chicken ($15.75). The moussaka, however, was disappointing, with a rich b©chamel topping that was thicker than the mixture it covered -- mostly potatoes, very little eggplant and wee bits of beef ($14.75). It was also badly in need of seasoning -- a dash of cinnamon would have helped. Maybe even (and I rarely say this) more salt.
We ordered the T-bone steak on the assumption it would be more tender than the sirloin, which is the only other steak listed. Possibly it was the wiser choice, but it was only an adequate one, since the meat was devoid of flavour and, if not exactly tough, not exactly tender either. It was also very thin and cooked medium-well instead of the medium-rare requested ($20.95). Other entree possibilities are fish and chips, maple-glazed salmon, fried chicken, fried shrimp and a hamburger platter.
Main courses include an excellent Greek salad -- big and fresh, with plenty of feta and olives ($5.95 la carte for the starter, $9.95 the full size). The fries are frozen, so we opted for the decent, if a tad greasy, lemon-roasted potatoes. Also included were thick slabs of garlic toast, which were dry, with barely a hint of garlic.
The pastas were the least successful of the dishes sampled. The manicotti's spinach-and-ricotta filling was nice but skimpy, overwhelmed by thick, tough rolls of pasta, prepared in four thin rolls instead of the more usual (and usually moister) three fat ones ($12.95). Spaghetti was baked under a layer of mozzarella: a dry, stodgy mass without enough marinara sauce to give it moisture ($11.95) For an extra $2.75 we added meatballs, which were big and so tasty I'd like to see them offered on their own.
But whatever Santa Lucia loses in the pastas, it makes up for in the pizzas, which are top-notch (from $14.95 for 10 inches to $38.25 for 18 inches). Only the Italian (spicy sausage, prosciutto, marinated eggplant and red peppers) is described as thin-crusted, but our Santa Lucia special came on a crust I'd consider medium-thin -- yeasty, pliable, nicely chewy, generously loaded with a well-integrated topping of pepperoni, bacon, mushrooms, onions and green peppers. It was absolutely delicious.
Four desserts are listed, all of them commercially prepared. Still, it seemed only right to try the baklava in a Greek-owned restaurant -- a mistake, it turned out, since it was mostly phyllo nuked to a solid, tough mass, with a flavourless walnut filling ($5.65).
The short wine list has some decent choices and $6.75 is a pretty fair price these days for six ounces of an Argentine Malbec or Pinot Grigio. Service was cheerful and attentive, but having our main courses turn up before we were even halfway through our appetizers was beyond annoying. The only option offered was to keep them warm for us -- not a good option when one of them was a steak.
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.
Please note that Santa Lucia now occupies the same address as the former BiBi's on Corydon, previously reviewed in the Free Press, and for continuity, both reviews are tagged to the same address.