Italian passion and upbringing pushes chef to always be better

Crystal Carwin Lee (@crystalcarwin) loves food, so she is working her way through The Tomato’s 2013 to 2015 lists of best places to eat or drink in Edmonton. Restaurant profiles will be posted on TLG, and you can find her review of Cibo Bistro on her own blog.

For the last three and a half years, Cibo Bistro (@cibobistroedm) has been winning Edmonton diners over with absolutely delicious Italian dishes. In that same amount of time, Cibo has found itself on The Tomato’s list of the top 100 things to eat for three consecutive years, something chef and owner Rosario Caputo says he is absolutely thrilled with. From the moment you enter the restaurant, you’re walking into their home and not their business.

Clockwise: Cibo's F/W menu, mezzaluna pasta and a plate of arancini and salumi. Photos by Crystal Lee.
Clockwise: Cibo’s F/W menu, mezzaluna pasta and a plate of arancini and salumi. Photos by Crystal Lee.

That mentality is understandable once you hear Rosario reminisce about his childhood. Growing up in an Italian household in Jasper National Park, Rosario recalls the family coming together for every special occasion and holiday. The gatherings always revolved around food. The kitchen was where the action was; his Nonna (grandmother) and mother usually hosting. It was there that he observed and absorbed the cooking process and learned to appreciate the delicate flavours of the food they would feast on. Rosario’s uncle was a chef, his Nonno (grandfather) grew fresh vegetables in his garden and his Nonna always cooked and cured her own meats and pickled her own veggies, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise that his own life would one day heavily revolve around food, too. Rosario’s passion started young, and ever since he began his studies in Culinary Arts through NAIT in 2004, he knew his dream of opening a restaurant would come true. By Nov. 1, 2011, it was a reality.

While there were some small hurdles on the road to opening Cibo Bistro (kitchen equipment and dining room items arriving late), everything came together relatively quickly. Rosario took over the space located at 11244 104 Ave. on Sept.1, 2011, and within two months they opened to the public. The space had required a huge transformation, including the installation of a fully operational commercial kitchen and a makeover of the dining room. Now, when you set foot into the establishment, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, and the aromas emanating from the kitchen smell incredibly enticing.

The Cibo nook. Perfect for a small gathering. Photo by Crystal Lee.
The Cibo nook. Perfect for a small gathering. Photo by Crystal Lee.

Their menu is seasonally focused. In the fall and winter there is an emphasis on more central and northern Italian influences — richer sauces and more braised items. In the spring and summer, the menu focuses on central and southern Italy where the fare is lighter. Year round, Rosario encourages using traditional Italian cooking methods and sourcing local produce. He says he believes that ingredients that are right at your back door are the best way to go, so Cibo Bistro purchases from local producers whenever possible. In fact, Rosario spends every Saturday morning at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market and, come summertime, he also stops by the City Market Downtown. They even host a “Shop Local link on their website that promotes the vendors that they work with.

Knowing that fresh ingredients are the basis of fantastic meals, I asked Rosario what he believes to be the best quality in a dish. His answer: keeping the ingredients simple. The few ingredients chosen should work in harmony and the flavours should shine through. From my experience of Cibo Bistro’s food, I would say that Rosario’s menu succeeds in that aspect. Rosario has every confidence in his dishes, making it very difficult for him to pick a favourite, so he resorts to telling me what has been most popular with his guests: polenta fritta, arancini, bruschetta, ricotta cakes and grilled octopus. However, he has a soft spot for the pastas, which he and his sous chef spend two to four hours a day lovingly making from scratch. A lot of pride and satisfaction comes from that work.

And it is hard work. Rosario is balancing entrepreneurship with his love of cooking, and it isn’t necessarily easy. Building up a strong base of patrons in a city that is becoming rich with choice can be a challenge. I know it took a while for me to learn of Cibo Bistro’s existence, but luckily, I did. Whenever I have a chance, I suggest people try it, so I think that word-of-mouth advertising has been the restaurant’s best friend. The support that Rosario has received from his guests is something he’s grateful for, and with Edmonton’s business scene growing every day, he feels that this is the right time and place to live out his dream.

When you’ve experienced success in your own endeavours, you’re likely to give back in any way you can, and Cibo Bistro is a prime example of that. Since the restaurant opened, they have worked closely with various charities: Camp fYrefly, Kids Kottage and Black Tie Bingo. They have also done a winter clothing drive as well as fundraising for MS, which is near and dear to Rosario’s heart.

This ties in well with Rosario’s philosophy for the restaurant. From day one, it has been, “Always push yourself to be better than you were the day before.” Whether we’re talking about cooking or life, I can see that Rosario won’t settle for being content with what he has already done and accomplished. He wants to continue to strive for improvement in all aspects, and I’m certain that he will have no problem doing so.