As Canada’s Capital, Ottawa is home to a bustling culinary scene that offers cuisine from all corners of the world. New restaurants abound in the busy and charming ByWard Market neighbourhood, which doubles as Ottawa’s entertainment district. But among the area’s new, trendy, independent coffee shops, boutiques and up-and-coming restaurants, old Ottawa gems such as Mezzanotte Bistro Italiano still thrive. If Italian cuisine is what you’re after, this is the place to go.
Located on the more tranquil outskirts of the ByWard Market area at 50 Murray St., Mezzanotte is a local culinary scene staple, having been in operation for about 20 years. But don’t let its age deter you; inside, you’ll find a modern, lounge-like décor reminiscent of sleek establishments in Miami and New York City. With lots of crystals, white furniture and soft white leather couches, Mezzanotte owner Tony Canonico says the establishment’s atmosphere is unique among other Italian restaurants in Ottawa.
“I’m always renovating every two years and doing different things,” Canonico said in an interview with Ottawa Tourism. “I think the look is very modern.” He added that when the restaurant opened in 1996, it only offered 35 seats. “Twenty years later, we’re [at] 150 seats and we’re probably one of the longest standing restaurants now in the ByWard Market,” he said.
But in addition to the unique décor, Canonico says what really sets Mezzanotte apart from other establishments is the food. Here, you’ll find dishes from both the South and the North of Italy.
“We have much more of a northern flair to the food,” he said, noting several Mezzanotte meals are rich in butter and cream. “This is not the place to be if you’re trying to stay on a diet,” Canonico said with a laugh. “We really want you to enjoy the dining experience when you’re here.” He added however that long-time Head Chef Abe Choueri – who’s been with Mezzanotte for 18 years – is happy to accommodate any allergies or dietary restrictions, including gluten-free.
According to Canonico, one of the restaurant’s greatest strengths is that it’s had the same chef and nearly the same staff over 18 years. This fact, he says, has allowed Mezzanotte to perfect not only its level of service, but its menu.
He noted that different menu items were tried over the years, with some of them being removed and others being kept. “Throughout the years, you try different menus and you take a little bit from each menu [to] sort of combine them to make the best menu,” the owner said. “After 20 years, you have a foundation where almost everything on your menu is excellent.”
If you’re thinking of having a meal at Mezzanotte, Canonico recommends ordering the restaurant’s signature Chilean Sea Bass. “It’s one of the best in the city,” he said. But in terms of a starter… What Italian dining experience would be complete without meatballs? In true, old Italian fashion, this other signature menu item is made and delivered to the restaurant by Mama Canonico herself. “My mom makes all the meatballs for the restaurant,” Canonico said. “They’re phenomenal.”
In terms of drinks to accompany your delectable meal, the owner says you can opt for a delicious lychee martini or a wine from the restaurant’s private stock wine list. Canonico noted these are wines from places such as Italy and California that you won’t find at a local store. “[The wines] are from private, small winemakers that just distribute to licensees or restaurateurs that are in their program,” he said.
Mezzanotte is open seven days a week for dinner and three days a week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) for lunch. Canonico added that on Saturday night, Mezzanotte is a popular spot for bachelorettes and birthday parties, as a DJ is there to play music from 10:30 p.m. on. With its luxurious lounge atmosphere, Canonico says the restaurant is a great place for groups to have a drink and a bite to eat before dancing the night away in one of the ByWard Market’s many clubs and bars.
Mezzanotte is yet another Ottawa success story, as Canonico started out as a busboy on Preston Street in the Little Italy neighbourhood and eventually became a restaurateur. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for close to 30 years,” he said, noting it takes a lot of hard work to keep a business such as this going for so long.
Canonico added the restaurant business looks “glamourous” from the outside, as most people are unaware of the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. “The restaurant business is something that is 24-7,” he said. “It’s something that we’re blessed with and we’re happy to be a part of, but it took a lot of hard work to be here for 20 years.”
Though Mezzanotte is one of the city’s classic restaurants, it is only one part of Ottawa’s bustling culinary scene that includes walking food tours, open-air markets, gourmet food trucks and more. To keep exploring the culinary scene in Canada’s Capital, browse Ottawa Tourism’s website.