Café Amoré is located in an unassuming part of St. Catharines. It’s not on Facer Street – the street that has so many ethnic food choices it feels like a mini-Europe – and it’s not in Port Dalhousie – one of the city’s potential-filled tourist areas. The restaurant is smack dab in the middle of a strip mall in a residential neighbourhood. When I think of great cuisine I never think “strip mall.” That said, Café Amoré defies the situational expectations and offers a delicious experience for anyone who enjoys Mediterranean inspired meals.
In a region where Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen, Café Amoré did the smart thing and developed a menu that includes dishes inspired by the culinary traditions of other countries hugging the coast of the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea. This has led to some interesting concoctions, like their Mediterranean poutine which features a mushroom Marsala wine sauce. But their strength lies in the predominantly traditional dishes, like antipasto plates or paella (I’m told it’s lovely but my allergies prevent me from trying the paella). As a whole, their menu will offer you something that you will enjoy but there is some room for improvement.
Consider their line up of Neapolitan pizzas. Over a year ago, Café Amoré invested in installing a wood fired brick oven to make what’s become the trendiest form of pizza in recent years. At first, the pizzas were not always consistently good but in recent months, it’s clear that the chef and cooks have gotten the cooking method under control. This is actually tougher than it sounds. When you put a pizza in an oven at around 454oC (8500F) you can end up with a soggy blanket of a pizza or a giant charred cracker if you aren’t careful. Now that they’ve managed to get the cooking right, it might be time to improve the recipes they use. Don’t misunderstand me, their pizzas are tasty. They could just use a little more “umph” when it comes to flavour profiles. For instance, their bianca prosciutto pizza is nice but it makes me think how much better it would be with the robust sweetness of figs to mingle with the salty prosciutto and aromatic garlic olive oil.
I almost always have a great experience eating at Café Amoré. That’s largely thanks to the front of house team. The bulk of the wait staff are knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. The popularity of the restaurant among locals keeps the staff in an aerobic exercise but it doesn’t seem to stress them out. Sure, I’ve had some surly moments (one impolite worker hung up on me when I called in a take-out order) but that behaviour seems to be isolated to a couple of staff members. This indicates that management seems to have a positive relationship with their employees and they just have a bad apple or two. I have to give management credit for employing capable and customer-focused staff and respecting that team. I can imagine that they treat their employees the way they want their employees to treat customers.
As mentioned above, Café Amoré’s home is in a strip mall – arguably among the least pleasing atmospheres. There’s a parking lot and pragmatic yet monotonous design to the exterior of the plaza. Café Amoré has managed to make the most of their situation and the wood fired oven is largely to thank for that.
Approaching the restaurant, the first two things you’ll notice are the piles of firewood outside and the idyllic fragrance of fire. The smell of the fire in the oven wafting through the air nearly sets off a Pavlovian response in anticipation of wonderful food.
Inside the restaurant, a legion of wine bottles and faux vines decorate the place. This is done in a classy way that doesn’t rely on tacky interior reconstructions of tropes of Italian or Greek culture. This is such a relief. There are one too many Greek restaurants with ruinous simulacra ranging from mini Acropolis facades to statues that are less than divinely designed. The lack of these Mediterranean tropes shows a respect for the cultures that inspired Café Amoré’s menu. Besides, it’s too difficult to pull off faux exterior and architecture inside a restaurant. The best I’ve seen is The Economy Shoe Shop in Halifax; now that’s a cozy use of fake exterior.
A final note on the atmosphere. While the popularity of the restaurant highlights the great quality of service, the popularity hampers the atmosphere. It’s nearly always full and the cacophony of conversations may not be pleasing to all diners. But, remember that this is not a problem that Café Amoré needs to address. It’s just a natural by-product of a popular restaurant: customers having a great culinary experience.
If you are looking for delicious Mediterranean inspired food in the Niagara region, you can’t go wrong with Café Amoré. They have developed a menu with strong classic dishes and have enough courage to try new culinary adventures. Their service is fantastic with an educated, customer-focused and amicable team with a couple of less than stellar servers. The atmosphere works despite the challenge of residing in a strip mall, the natural smell of firewood in the air and a subtle approach to the theme of the décor is enjoyable.
Full disclosure: I work part-time for an olive oil and balsamic tasting bar which supplies Café Amoré with some olive oils and balsamic vinegars.