The most rewarding part of my job is all the great people I get to meet. Wait -- it's the food. And also, all the great people I get to meet. I am so lucky to have developed terrific relationships with the restaurant owners we've filmed with over these last three seasons. These folks have become like an extended family to me, which means a lot to me given all the time I'm away from my own. When you come across a good mom-and-pop shop, the family vibe and personal touch really make a difference. The food just tastes better when it's made with love. And some cheese. Also, a little bacon doesn't hurt.
There's something special about the type of restaurant where the owner is the chef, the kids work the front, and the rest of the family works in the back. I grew up with uncles who owned restaurants, so I know the struggles that come with running a family business. These restaurants pay the bills, from clothing their kids to paying the mortgage, it's a tough business and these places make it happen.
It's that close family feeling that really makes me fall in love with a restaurant, and there's been no shortage of those experiences for me on You Gotta Eat Here! If you're looking for great food made by even better people, I know plenty of restaurants that are worth a visit. Or five!
In Vancouver, B.C., during Season One, we visited Neighbours Restaurant on Victoria Drive and almost weren't allowed to leave. When we showed up at this Greek restaurant, the mother couldn't figure out why we would stay in a hotel when they had spare rooms in their house! Other places just feel like family, like Vancouver's Calabash Bistro, where I ate roti this season. Even though these guys aren't technically family, they're like brothers. The vibe in there is so tight.
Whenever we land in Calgary, AB, we have a tradition. First, director Jim Morrison and I drop off our bags at the hotel then immediately hop back in the cab and head straight to Una where we eat all the pizza they have. We eat a lot of pizza. And just like mom would do, chef Steve Smee lets us eat until we're stuffed. He's a great mom. (Does that sound weird?) I feel right at home.
The relationships I've developed are as unforgettable as the food at these restaurants. In Carstairs, AB, Season Three viewers have already seen us visit Café Radio. The place is run by two brothers, Sheldon and Jason Valleau and their families. Their mom makes all the desserts from scratch and you can't beat the taste of the food or the great people that keep this place running. Oh, and they also make pizza soup. How awesome is that? I'm hoping they'll adopt me.
Also this season, in Regina, SK, we visit Fresh and Sweet. This restaurant is particularly cool because of the all-women crew who run it. When she's not making delicious brunch, Chef Beata Thompson skates in a roller derby league. Her derby name? Beata Bitchdown. So that's amazing. This woman serves some of the best over-the-top breakfasts around, and will hip check you if you don't finish your bacon and peach pancakes. Just like my mom used to do.
Also this year, we visit Quebec City's Casa Calzone. These guys have the best calzones I've ever tasted. Chef Joe Gamper learned the art of the calzone from his dad, who still hides certain recipes from him, including his signature spice blend recipe. All you have to do is try the La Flambé au Cognac and you'll understand why Joe's dad is so protective of the family secrets!
You can travel across the country in search of the best restaurants, but sometimes all you need to do is look in your own backyard. I had this experience at a cottage near Huntsville, ON. We had spent a week up there and I wanted something other than barbequed burgers. Growing up in an Italian household, I definitely have high standards when it comes to Italian food, and we discovered this restaurant called That Little Place by the Lights that did not disappoint. When we walked in, we were treated to the glorious smell of home made tomato sauce; I knew right then and there that this was the real deal.
Manny, the owner's son, showed us to our seat. When I asked about the lasagna, he didn't miss a beat. "What part of Italy are you from?" When I told him we're from the South, he looked me up and down and said, "well it won't be as fancy as you're used to, but you'll like it." And he turned and went back to the kitchen. I knew from that moment that I was home. I ended up ordering the lasagna and it was the perfect choice; everything was incredible. We filmed there during Season One and I got to know the family very well: Manny's parents, Annie and Loris, became like my aunt and uncle.
It's a small spot, so Annie cooks in the basement. When I went downstairs to her modest kitchen, she started ripping into me just like my Zia would. I'll never forget when we wrapped filming at their restaurant and the family insisted we stay for dinner. They put the tables together in one long family-style row and we all felt very at home there. To this day, the whole crew stops by whenever we're in the area.
With these family run restaurants, you can feel the passion and personal touch as soon as you walk in the door. And that's the special connection that a great family place has with their customers. You walk in the door hungry and you leave feeling full of love -- and SO MUCH pasta.
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