Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Great expectations

Food doesn't match up to Santa Lucia's popularity

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I DON’T know how big it used to be, but this new, expanded St. Boniface Santa Lucia is a massive and dramatic building, offering even more space in summer on a roof-top terrace. It’s quite attractive within, with pale brick and avocado-green walls — one of them almost entirely covered by a view of Venice — and big, arched windows along the outer walls.

It is also monstrously, boiler-factory noisy -- even at our booth on the window side, and I suspect the din at tables in the middle of the room would have been even louder.

The parking lot is huge too, stretching around to the back and sides, but even before 5 p.m. on one visit I found myself circling, looking for a non-existent parking space. It's an indication of how popular this place is and, in fact, many readers have praised the food at this location, especially the pizzas.

As it happened, dinner began really well, with the Greek sampler appetizer which comprised four dolmadakia grape leaves stuffed with lemony rice, four wedges of excellent feta, two wedges of flaky spanakopita, heaps of kalamata olives, and top-notch tzatziki, as well as some chunks of hard, pale tomatoes. All of it, except for the tomatoes, was excellent, and a good buy at $9.95.

High hopes survived through the delicious Greek salad that was included with some of the entrées -- nicely dressed, generously strewn with feta, with two kalamata olives and (sigh) more of those anemic tomatoes. It also survived through two of the entrées, tops among them the terrific ribs, which were meaty and firm, with a lovely barbecue sauce that was more a subtly tangy glaze than a scarlet glop -- a massive full rack for $19.95, including good fries and cole slaw. I'd go back any time for those ribs alone.

Chicken souvlaki was pretty good (two skewers, $13.95), but then things went downhill. The layers of the moussaka didn't hold together, and the dryish, barely seasoned ground beef was spread over the plate. But that wasn't the worst of it.

The worst was the topping, a flavourless white slab of a near-solid something that didn't taste in the least like bechamel -- so strange, in fact, that four us of just couldn't guess what it might have been ($13.95).

Both dishes came with lemon-roasted potatoes, which might have been OK if they hadn't been covered (a first in my experience) in a strange kind of sauce which, as near as I could tell, was composed of bits of potato and lemon juice.

A dip into the Italian side of the menu with the manicotti was only half good.

The pasta tubes with a light ricotta-spinach filling would have been acceptable if they hadn't been overwhelmed by a tomato sauce, which not only tasted acidic, but also contained big chunks of tomato, just as they had come out of the can -- the dish was enormously improved once most of the sauce had been scraped off ($12.45).

Possibly the biggest disappointment of all was the pizza, mainly because our expectations had been raised by the fervent praise we'd heard about that namesake product, which was reputed to be the city's best.

Far from it, judging by the one we got. We'd ordered the Santa Lucia special (the restaurant's best seller) which turned out to be a dry, tasteless crust with a topping that offered plenty of pepperoni and bacon, but little flavour (from $10.95 for the simplest 10 inches to $34.20 for 18-inch gourmet pie).

The only Greek dessert was a two-chunk portion of baklava -- not house-made, and a little tough, but not bad. The short wine list offers a few decent choices, and service was attentive and pleasant throughout.

-- -- --

There are six Santa Lucia outlets, all of them individually owned, with similar menus and prices. Several years ago I'd enjoyed food at the original site on Waterloo, and I couldn't resist doing a limited comparison. I was hoping especially to find a better moussaka but I can't report on it since it wasn't available -- the eggplant was too hard to find (in River Heights, apparently, if not in St. Boniface).

Although there were some differences in performance, it all pretty much evened out. Chicken souvlaki were pretty good here too, and in this case there was no nonsense about dousing those lemony potatoes with that odd potato sauce. On the other hand, the Greek salad was blah, composed mostly of off-white head lettuce with a skimpy sprinkling of feta. The manicotti was also pretty much the same, with a sauce that was similarly acidic, but pasty in this case, without those chunks of canned tomatoes. And, like its St. Boniface cousin, much improved once the sauce was scraped off.

But the pizza did live up to its reputation, the Mediterranean in this case.

Not only was the crust moist and puffy, but the topping of sun-dried tomatoes, feta, black olives and artichokes was delicious. So good in fact, I'm willing to accept the possibility that the one I had in St. Boniface was just the result of an off-night at the pizza oven.

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2011 D5

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