Montreal has many wonderful restaurants befitting the second largest French-speaking city outside of Paris, not to mention a multicultural profile that rivals New York’s (but on a much smaller scale). Suffice it to say that it’s tough to get a bad meal in this city, and great meals can be had with very little effort. Simply put, unlike bad restaurants in tourist traps, Montreal’s winters mean that for any restaurant to survive, it has to build a local clientele. And Montrealais generally have pretty high standards!
Most of us have a few “favorite” restaurants, but would be hard pressed to name just one that has retained that status for more than a quarter century. But I have one.
In 1981, after serving as best man to the Sasquatch at his wedding, we were invited to a little post-nuptial celebration at Chez Magnani (“Magnani’s” to its friends), an unpretentious Italian eatery, way outside the tourist areas in a blue-collar residential neighborhood in the city’s North end. Even back then it looked retro, with a ’50’s style that didn’t seem in any way studied or intentional; it was as if the owners simply saw no reason to make any changes or concessions to modernity. But the food….OMG…the food! I had eaten at many Italian restaurants in Montreal, New York, L.A., and in Europe, but the food at Magnani’s had a unique depth of flavor and satisfaction. A memorable meal.
I didn’t return again until the birth of my daughter in 1982. Taking a dinner break from visiting my wife and baby in hospital, I headed to Magnani’s for a quick bite. It was the beginning of a love affair that would endure to the present day. Between 1982-2000, I ate there 2-3 times per week (and sometimes more often). It was not uncommon to have eaten lunch there on a Friday and when asked by my wife where I’d like to go for a dinner out, Magnani’s immediately leaped out of my mouth. My wife used to joke that there was no point throwing me out of the house in the event of a divorce, as she was sure I’d land safely and with a full belly at Magnani’s.
The owner, Giuseppe (Joe), and I became fast friends over the years, making wine together and visiting each others homes as a family. His youngest son worked for me for a couple of years. My daughter’s earliest drawings still adorn the walls of the small office in the restaurant. There were many memorable meals and my plate was always just a little more full than everyone else’s. A complementary glass of wine and a jar of blistering hot peppers magically appeared with every meal. The route to “my” table – it’s funny how territorial we become – always included a quick walk through the kitchen to see what was cooking and to get a hug from Joe’s wife Elizabeth (she was the chef for more than 30 years). Joe even carved out a piece of his 1936 vinegar “mother” and seeded a new oak barrel with it for me. It still resides in my cold-room, producing a most amazing nectar.
My most memorable meal actually came at the end of an already belly-busting lunch. My companion Irving and I had finished paying the check and were about to leave when Joe’s nephew showed up from a day of smelt fishing at a mountain stream in the Laurentians during the annual smelt run. He was carrying a plastic bucket with hundreds of live smelt thrashing about in the water. “Momento” Joe yelled at us, “Sit down”. We sat and within minutes he appeared with two huge platters loaded with crisply fried fresh smelt that had been alive minutes before. With lots of lemon juice and salt, we had a second lunch that to this day defies an accurate description of pleasure.
Joe retired about 10 years ago and his youngest son, Enrico, continues to run the place virtually unchanged. He has made a few minor renewals of carpeting and seat covers, but the place remains faithful to the day it opened in the early ’50’s. Even the “bullet-hole” in the main window is still there – Enrico insists it was just an errant stone from construction equipment – but we know better. The menu too remains unchanged and faithful to the recipes of Mr. Magnani. This isn’t just classical Italian cooking, it’s Italian cooking frozen in a time warp in 1953. And it’s customers wouldn’t have it any other way.
Restaurant Chez Magnani, 9245 Lajeunesse Street, Montreal.