There’s been a bit of a buzz in the air in my Ottawa neighbourhood over the past few months as extensive renovations have transformed the former Collected Works bookstore on Wellington West into a restaurant. As The Flying Banzini has taken shape, many have enjoyed following owner Dave Scharf’s journey through his honest and entertaining account of the trials and tribulations of dramatic career change, logistical hurdles, decisions, menus and more (www.flyingbanzini.com/blog/).
Opening day is August 31; I popped in a few days ago to meet Dave and have a look around. Dave’s a charming man with a love of music, a quirky sense of humour and a conviction that visiting a restaurant should involve more than just eating delicious food – it should offer a complete entertainment experience. That’s precisely the sentiment behind The Flying Banzini. The whimsical name doesn’t really refer to anything in particular, other than implying something Italian, which suits the menu; Dave confirms that the chosen moniker also offered the opportunity for an interesting turn-of-the-century logo.
The corten weathering steel on the façade has quickly taken on an eye-catching patina and when the front windows are open, the restaurant practically calls out to you to please come in and enjoy. Before too long, Dave hopes to have a tiny sidewalk patio as well. Inside, the eclectic décor has developed into what Dave describes as steampunk-esque.
The counter at which you’ll place your order, pay and be handed a celebrity nametag before taking a seat is to the left, with 48 seats in the middle and right areas scattered amongst high tops, chairs and richly upholstered banquettes. Schoolhouse lights along with some funky transparent globes over the bar add ambiance. Before you sit, however, be sure to take note of the brass speaking tube behind the bar – it’s a low-tech, amusing yet very effective way to connect the upper cooking and service kitchen with the lower bakery and prep area in the basement.
Photographs by local artists are on display (and for sale), along with a quintet of eyecatching canvas-printed images captured by Dave’s father, a lifelong photography buff. A ceiling-mounted projector displays short films on the opposing platinum-wallpapered surface. Dave’s longtime career as a radio disc-jockey in Saskatoon is apparent in the restaurant’s lovingly-crafted playlist; I felt tempted to linger a little longer on my first two visits, just to hear what songs were next in the lineup. Entertainment is also on offer via trivia questions on the aforementioned clever namecard system that will identify patrons for the purpose of delivering orders – ideally in less than 10 minutes from when you made your selection.
The menu – with its clever tagline, “lofty roast meats and cheesecake with altitude” – is short but carefully constructed. Sandwich options include two soft bun versions featuring house-roasted meats (porchetta and beef) as well as eight panini or regular or gluten free buns. All sandwiches are generous in size yet modestly priced at $7.95.
I was particularly smitten with the pizzas I tasted. There are 8 varieties, cleverly named as are the panini, prepared on a thin crust (gluten free, if you prefer) with interesting toppings and a tasty house-made sauce, priced at just $11.95 for a 10 inch pizza.
“Vegetarian dishes are not just an afterthought on our menu,” says Dave. Proof? Both the sandwich and pizza menus include multiple appealing meatless options (see the panini pictured above). Savoury cheesecakes (a most tempting appetizer), three salads, soup of the day and delectable roasted potato wedges round out the offerings but you’d be wise to save room for some sweets as well. The petite cheesecakes are a marvel – small enough that you can taste several without feeling guilty, but flavourful and satisfying enough that one might just be enough after a big meal. “Naughty biscotti” and cheesecake ice cream are also available.
There’s a short wine list and several beers, including local brews Beyond the Pale and Beau’s, plus Birra Moretti (“which I chose because I like the guy in the funny hat on the label,” says Dave). Coffee is from Hintonburg’s Bytown Beanery and teas come from neighbouring Nectar Fine Teas.
At the restaurant, Dave is known as the Big Banzini; his brigade includes Restaurant Manager Raye Ann (Captain Banzini), Chef Ryan Moore (the Savoury Banzini) and Pastry Chef Raelene Harder (the Sweet Banzini) along with a team of Little Banzinis. All are as cheerful and enthusiastic as their boss; it feels like it’d be a pretty great place work, actually. I’m quite certain it’s going to be a fun and popular place to dine. I am confident that once everyone’s up to speed, the service is going to be excellent, given Dave’s attention to detail. An example: during a soft opening lunch, a couple arrived with a toddler. Dave immediately ran next door to buy a booster seat. What a welcoming gesture.
The Flying Banzini is at 1242 Wellington Street West, Ottawa (near Holland Avenue). 613.601-9303. It will be open for lunch and dinner, with the full menu available for takeout as well.