"I have two rules in the kitchen," Luigi Velocci, president of the Italian Canadian Cultural Association on Agricola Street, tells me. "Use the best quality ingredients, and you have to be authentic. You gotta get San Marazano tomatoes. If you can't get them, don't do it. We make out own sausages, pasta and sauce. Same with the gnocchi."
Velocci's a weekend top chef at the dinners the ICCA hosts every Sunday night. He's a tall fella with meat hook hands who came to Nova Scotia on a football scholarship and stayed. By day, he's a forensic auditor.
He shares kitchen duties with Lanfranco Nardi, a retiree from Lazio. Five sous chefs support them and one lady makes the pastries. When professional chefs come, Velocci says, "They are always kind of amazed. The room is not restaurant quality, but they are surprised at what a bunch of volunteers can do."
Dinner at the ICCA is several steps up from a church dinner, but a couple notches below a professional restaurant. The lasagna alone is worth the price of admission. It'd Nardi's great-grandmother's recipe; he layers 10 wispy sheets of pasta and lightly dresses them in tomato sauce and cheese. I also love the dreamy Roman gnocchi, a kind of crisp, airy semolina-cheese croquette.
On my first dinner, I snagged a rare hunter's special: a rich plate of slow-cooked moose on polenta. Other memorable dishes include the pollo romano, a kind of cacciatore with butter and cream, pasta carbonara assembled properly, with egg yolks, butter, cheese and bacon or the two sweet homemade pork sausages on a bed of beans moistened with cheese and olive oil.
It's refreshing---no dish is ever over-sauced. Velocci is particular about his tomato sauce. "The base sauce, it has to be as pure as possible, with no chunks in it," he says. "I triple-sieve it so there are no seeds in it. Most people think it's insane."
Add sides of roasted potatoes, sea-salted foccacia and fresh mixed greens from the market, drizzled simply with balsamic and oil, and prego, a huge two-course meal for $14. In the corner is a cash bar where a half-litre of house red is $13.
Sure, the salad bowl is styrofoam. The food comes on plastic trays and the water in plastic cups. The music might shut down for 10 minutes between CD changes and if they run out of a dish, you never know what will appear on your plate.
Once, we received a course without cutlery. The dish looked hand-edible. We did it. Later, we asked for a knife and fork. "You didn't get any before? So how...wait!" the server exclaims, her hands raised, "I don't want to know!" I love the attitude. They make you feel like family.
The dinners started as fundraisers for the Association after the new clubhouse, a glass and concrete landmark next to Gus' Pub, opened in 2007. "We used to do this at the old club, but it wasn't open to the public," Velocci says. "With the new club we thought, we have this new space, let's open it up to the public.
"It's a way to get back into the kitchen. And we have a beautiful kitchen. It takes your mind off the day-to-day."
The cooks teach Italian cookery courses and have accumulated a huge store of family recipes from club members. Velocci calls their recipe files "an informal Italian club cookbook." Now that's one cookbook I'd like to see on my shelf.