Unedited, longer version of an article originally run in The Coast Halifax. Read their edited version here.
“I have two rules in the kitchen,” Luigi Velocci, president of the Italian Canadian CulturalAssociation 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 week-end 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 on. By day, he’s a forensic auditor. Yeah, the big guy’s an accountant.
He shares kitchen duties with Lanfranco Nardi, a retiree from Lazio, the same part of Italy as Velocci’s father. 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. I’ve been going all winter. It’s fun.
The lasagne is worth the price of admission alone. Nardi’s great-grandmother’s recipe, layers ten wispy sheets of homemade pasta and lightly dresses them in tomato sauce and cheese. I also loved 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.
Slow cooked moose with polenta.
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 possible, with no chunks in it. I triple sieve it to there are no seeds in it. Most people think it’s insane, but that’s the way I do it.”
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. Share a slice of cake for two dollars more.
Sure, the salad bowl is styrofoam. The food comes on plastic trays and the water in plastic cups. The music might shut down for ten 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 do it. Later, we ask 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 like their attitude. It makes me feel like family and on that point, these dinners are very family friendly. Our little guy was picked up, pinched and passed around by a neighbouring table.
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 tells me. “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. Sometime my 8 year old son will come in and cook with me, so it’s a way of passing down traditions through generations.”
The cooks teach Italian cookery courses and they 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.
The Italian Canadian Cultural Association Sunday Dinners.
WHERE: 2629 Agricola Street
TIME: Sundays, 4:30pm-7:00pm
COST: $14 for non-members
DETAILS: Dinners run January to Mother’s Day, stop for the summer, then resume in September. Check weekly menus at http://www.iccans.org/