Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 20/9/2014 (2121 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg has a host of mouth-watering Italian ristorantes, among them Mona Lisa, Amici and Santa Ana Pizzeria and Bistro. So it might come as a surprise to learn one of the top-rated Italian spots in town — at least, according to restaurant review website urbanspoon.com — is an unassuming lunch counter and pool hall called X-Cues' Billiards & Cafe.
"Are you pulling my leg? Are you sure you've got the right place?" asks head chef Franca Colatruglio after being informed of her kitchen's heady, 92 per cent approval rating.
Colatruglio runs the West End icon, located at 551 Sargent Ave., in tandem with her brother, Sal Infantino. Its reputation was built around coffee, but after Colatruglio returned from a trip to Italy six years ago, it quickly became a destination for foodies as well.
"We used to serve mostly pizzas and paninis, but when I got back from vacation (in 2008), I told Sal from now on I was going to make my kind of food," says Colatruglio, balling up her apron and taking a seat in the games-room section of the 6,000-square-foot location -- an area in which the siblings lost their fair share of pool matches because Gaetano Infantino, their father and founder of X-Cues', told them it was poor form to beat customers.
"I usually have two or three specials available every day. Chicken, especially my cacciatore, seems to be high on everybody's list, and I like to throw in my takes on pickerel, salmon and ribs, too."
Sal Infantino doesn't need to read any online platitudes to know what people think of his sister's fare. The best evidence of that, he says, is when diners wave him off when he tries to tell them about the daily specials.
"Most of 'em don't really give two hoots what's on their plate," Infantino says with a laugh. "They just plop themselves down and say, 'Franca, bring me some food.' "
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The Infantinos moved to Montreal from their native Sicily in 1968. Twelve months later, Gaetano, his wife, Pina, and their three children relocated to Winnipeg, where Gaetano's brother Enzo was already living.
Back home, Gaetano, one of nine children, was a member of the Carabinieri, Italy's version of the RCMP. But his true passion in life was coffee, his son says.
"He could take one sip and tell you immediately what needed to be done or the kind of beans that were used. He was a real connoisseur."
So when space became available in a used furniture store a couple of blocks away from the family's McGee Street home, Gaetano jumped at the chance to open Winnipeg's first espresso bar, which he named Enzo's after his brother, who joined him as partner. (The pool tables came later. For the first decade or so, Enzo's was wedged between a furniture store on one side and an Alcoholics Anonymous hall on the other, before the brothers were able to expand.)
Sal Infantino, 51, started working for his dad when he was in elementary school. By the time he was 14, he was hopping on a bus first thing Saturday morning -- by then the family had moved to St. James -- to open the place on his own.
Infantino joined his father full time in 1986, the same year the name above the door changed from Enzo's to X-Cues', after Enzo left the business to pursue other opportunities. Gaetano retired in 1995 -- in theory.
"He'd still show up first thing every morning. I'd send him on runs to the supplier or to the warehouse. He'd pick up my kids at school and take them for lunch. Sometimes he'd go home and have a nap in the afternoon, but by 5 or 6 he was back for the evening shift."
Gaetano slipped and broke his hip when he was 79. He was diagnosed with cancer a year later and died in 2012 at the age of 82. Six months after the funeral, an older, well-dressed gentleman entered X-Cues' and asked Infantino for five minutes of his time.
"I had no idea who he was, and quite honestly I was a bit worried about talking to him because of the serious tone in his voice," Infantino says. "He sat me down in the corner and said it was important he tell me the story of how my dad helped him and so many of his friends.
"Apparently in the '70s, people used to come here straight from the airport. He told me the cabbies all knew that if an Italian guy came to Winnipeg and was looking for a place to go, they could drop him off here with his luggage and my dad would make sure he had a place to sleep that very same night."
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Giuseppe "the Godfather" DeNatale is a champion kick-boxer who runs the Canadian Fighting Center, a martial-arts training facility on Wardlaw Avenue. He figures he would have been a toddler the first time his father brought him to X-Cues'. It's hard to pinpoint, he says, because he can't recall a time in his life when he hasn't been going there on a regular basis.
"For guys who grew up in the West End, it's a true staple of the neighbourhood -- more of a social club than a restaurant, if you wanna know the truth," DeNatale says. "I can't live without my espresso, and I'm probably there three or four days a week at least, just for that."
At various times in his career, DeNatale held titles such as IKF World Heavyweight Muay Thai Champion and ISKA North American Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion. One of the secrets to his success, he says, was the grub at X-Cues'.
"I used to fight in Milwaukee quite often, and before leaving town, I'd always make a point of stopping by the restaurant," says DeNatale, who now shows up for lunch with his own children in tow. "It was a 13- or 14-hour drive, so Sal would pack me a few paninos for the road and I'd be good to go."
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Infantino hears it all the time: Isn't Sargent Avenue a rough-and-tumble part of town? Don't you wish your business was somewhere else?
"Through the years, I've had a ton of people pushing me to relocate, but I truly like this neighbourhood. I'm at home here," says Infantino, noting a big part of his clientele includes immigrants from countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia -- the common bond being they enjoy watching soccer on the big-screen TV as much as the old-school Italians who still call the place home.
"This is a real down-to-earth place where very few pretentious people ever walk through the doors. There've been times when friends of mine have said, 'If I come down to see you do I need to bring security?'
"My answer to that is the same as what my dad would have said: 'You know what? Do me a favour and don't come.' "
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SPORTS fans are known for their idiosyncrasies -- so much so that two years ago, Bud Light built an entire ad campaign, set to the Stevie Wonder hit Superstition, around the notion donning a particular pair of socks on game day or arranging beer cans in a certain fashion meant the difference between winning and losing.
Being a huge soccer nut, owner Sal Infantino didn't blink an eye in 2006 when customers at X-Cues' Billiards & Cafe started to behave, well, like sports fans.
"I don't know if you remember, but '06 was the year Italy won the World Cup," Infantino says, his eyes sparkling as if he was talking about the births of his two children. "During the tournament we set up chairs in front of the TVs, and if you weren't here first thing in the morning, you weren't getting a seat."
As the days went by and Italy continued on its path to the championship, an odd thing occurred, Infantino says. Not only did people watching Italian matches at X-Cues' make sure chairs were precisely where they'd been for the previous game, they made sure everybody in attendance sat in the exact same spot as well.
"I'd be at the counter making coffees, and all I'd hear for half an hour before the game was, 'Tony, two days ago you were on my left! And Joe, you were on my right!' It was frigging hilarious."
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