Tasting the city: C’est Bon Cooking offers food-filled strolls through Ottawa’s culinary scene

C'est Bon Cooking offers at least one weekly food tour, typically in the Byward Market

Amy (Twitter) is one of the co-creators of Local Tourist Ottawa who moved to the city more than eight years ago to attend Carleton University. Originally hailing from a small town in southwestern Ontario, she loves everything about Ottawa, from the buzz of Parliament Hill to Dalhousie’s local shopping and the thriving food scene.

The fresh air of fall makes for perfect walking weather.

Bread is serious business at Little Italy Bakery

Good timing, then, that I had the opportunity to take an educated stroll a couple of weeks back with C’est Bon Cooking, as they held a special tour of Preston Street’s Little Italy for the 15th annual La Vendemmia.

A bit of background on C’est Bon Cooking: Started by Chef Andrée Riffo in 2008, C’est Bon offers cooking classes, culinary team building and tasting-style tours of Ottawa’s hottest culinary neighbourhoods, mainly in the Byward Market, where they offer 2 different routes weekly. C’est Bon also makes a point of checking out “other foodie neighbourhoods” at least once a season. Preston Street seems to be the theme of the year, as C’est Bon is offering another tour in Little Italy on Oct. 29.

Our group of eight — including the incredibly knowledgeable Paola St. Georges as guide — met in front of the Preston mainstay of Nicastro’s around 10 am. Many armed with coffee, it was fun to chat and learn a bit about what others were expecting and their takes on Ottawa’s thriving food scene. (At least three in the group had done one of Paola’s Byward Market Tours).

Fresh, organic produce from Riverglen Farm at the Little Italy Farmer's Market

We started out at Little Italy Bakery, which has a tiny storefront crammed full of bread. A new experience for me, it was interesting to learn that this one small shop made all the buns for Nicastro’s and The Piggy Market, amongst others. We also heard tales of how people would show up and buy garbage bags worth of buns, which we gladly sampled. (The bread was excellent — a perfect combination of flaky, powdery crust and a soft, airy middle.)

After a quick stop in at Nicastro’s — which hardly needs a description, having three stores across the city that have been well sought out since the first opened in Little Italy in 1972 — we headed over to the Little Italy Farmer’s Market, which takes place Saturdays in the parking lot of the adult high school at Preston and Gladstone.

Considering how community-focused Preston is, it was neat to learn that this year marked the first full season of the Market — though its last weekend for the season just passed. (The vendors are talking about doing a Christmas edition though, so keep your ears peeled!) A neat twist on what’s offered in some of the others around the city, the Preston Street Farmer’s Market boasts a “Farmer’s Breakfast” for $6. A total of four or five vendors participate to bring you your meal and you stroll around to each booth to gather the goods, all of which are local.

Meow! That's Hot sauces are sure to spice up any meal with fun, fruit-based flavours

Joel, of Joel's Coffee in Rockland, shows off a bag of beans that he roasts himself

We spent quite a lot of time at the Market, hitting Riverglen Farm, Helios Farm (featuring some of the spiciest and tastiest arugula I’ve tasted), Knock Out Cattle Co., Beking Poultry Farm (where the$6 breakfast kicks off!), Hall’s Apple Market, Snell House Foods (all-natural salsa and salad dressing), Jacqui O’s Sweet Temptations (who has now move to the Landsdowne Farmer’s Market), Meow! That’s Hot (fruit-based hot sauce) and Joel’s Coffee.

But the highlight was a 10-minute chat we had with Luciano Pradal, a known local tourism expert in his own right, who sometimes leads his own walking tours of Preston that are more focused on the neighbourhood’s expansive history. The vivacious man serves up roasted chestnuts with a smile and a joke at the Farmer’s Market each week — and, now that the weather’s turning cold, he’s in front of La Bottega on York Street. (By the way, if you’ve never had a roasted chestnut, you really should; one of the most delicious, buttery-tasting things I’ve ever eaten. I was seriously surprised.)

Luciano Pradal is a well-known figure on Preston Street and in the Little Italy community. His roasted chestnuts may be just as famous.

More than an hour into our tour already and we had barely made it 300 feet; just a sign of the many things to come — and all that Preston Street and C’est Bon Cooking has to offer.

Next up, we hit Divino Wine Studio (which offers cooking lessons, Italian lessons, wine tours through Italy and $35 three-course dinners on Tuesdays. Wow.), Sanguiccio’s (who makes what he feels on any given day of the week; that means you’re always in for a surprise), and Preston’s other best-known, family-owned businesses: Luciano’s Fine Foods and Home of Pasta.

Luciano Foods and its sister store, Home of Pasta, are two of Preston's best-known food stores

A quick side tour by the still-closed Patiscceria Gelateria Italiana (it was shut down due to a fire in July) and through a back alley to highlight how the Italian community is used to living — with houses backing on to a grassy back lane where children play together and full gardens pepper each person’s own yards — and we arrived at the back of Preston Hardware.

Really? Yes, really. Unknown to me, Preston Hardware come fall turns into a veritable one-stop shop for all things related to home-based wine-making. The back warehouse was chock full of thousands of wine grapes, wine juices, wine-making supplies and an industrial-sized grape press.

Wine grapes fill the back of Preston Hardware during the fall harvest season

By now we were well over our allotted 2.5-hour tour, but having learned so much already, we pressed on, hitting the Lindenhof (Ottawa’s only German restaurant), Simply Biscotti and Pub Italia, where we finished off the day with some much-needed water and not-so-needed pizza. (We were all stuffed with samples by that point.)

I wish I could contain all the knowledge that Paola imparted to our captivated group during our stretched out, four-houd tour, but it really is an experience everyone should have for themselves.

Perhaps it’s best described in C’est Bon Cooking’s own words:

The aim of our food tours is to get participants excited about food and the wonderful restaurants and fine food shops we now have in Ottawa. We start by telling our guests about the evolution of the food scene in Ottawa, taking them from the days when the city boasted only a few fine dining options to now where great restaurants and fine food shops abound! We also introduce our guests to Savour Ottawa and how that association is helping our local farmers “grow their business” with local restaurants and the public. As the tour winds its way through, we tell our participants a little of the history of Ottawa’s epicurean neighbourhoods and how they came to be.

Our host for the day, Paola St. Georges, was incredibly knowledgeable, offering background and tidbits about Ottawa's changing culinary scene at every chance

And I’ll also leave you with three fun facts I didn’t know about Ottawa’s foodie scene (of which I consider myself to be an active member):

  • The Lone Star Texas Grill was one of the first restaurants to spice up Ottawa’s restaurant scene, with former Texas-born RoughRider Val Belcher bringing TexMex north of the border. The lineups at the Merivale location were legendary when the restaurant first opened in 1986. There’s now 16 locations across Ontario and the food family also now includes Big Daddy’s Crab Shack and The Big Easy (on Preston).
  • Ottawa’s foodie community has been looking to open a permanent Farmer’s Market somewhere in the city, and a warehouse just off Preston, between Somerset and Gladstone, is rumoured to be one likely location.
  • Pub Italia’s religious decor is the result of Italian owner Joe Catroneo trying to accommodate his own history with that of his wife — an Irish girl. Joe was also the driving force behind the movement to get murals put up under the 417 overpass, which was the first time Ontario allowed such activity on one of its bridges.

As the day wound down, everyone in our group was in agreement: The $45 cost of a C’est Bon Cooking tour was worth it — in value, info and deliciousness.

Check out C’est Bon’s website for its upcoming tours, including a repeat of the Preston Street tour and other seasonal happenings!