The aroma of fresh bread, rich buttery sauces and fragment herbed pasta warm the air, wafting from an attractive modern Italian restaurant tucked away in downtown St. Catharines. La Scala Ristorante is one of Niagara’s best kept secrets; named after the iconic Opera House in Milan, La Scala has embraced a similar historical charm as the famous Italian landmark – converting a renovated heritage building into the restaurant’s latest home.
La Scala has managed to orchestrate the impossible; a perfect ambiance that is simultaneously quiet and refined while radiating the inviting warmth of an old world restaurant. This juxtaposition of crisp fresh table linens and modern cast iron fixtures set against a raw stone statement wall and softly lit candles which rest at each private table set the tone for the truly outstanding authentic Italian feast to come.
Fragrant and fresh bruschetta topped with ready to burst cherry tomatoes, melt in your mouth grilled calamari, pressed in house stuffed ravioli, veal scaloppini bathed in a creamy and garlicy Marsala sauce; the menu reads like a beautiful song and dance – an homage to traditional slow style of Italian cooking with a lighter modern twist – and packed with more flavour than your palette can identify.
“I have been in business for 13 years and I have people that continue to come in and have eaten the same thing for over 13 years,” said Joe Marchese, owner of La Scala. “They don’t veer off at all because they love it.”
La Scala was first nurtured to life only a few blocks away from its current home – making a name for itself in a quaint 28 seat location on Church Street for over 10 years. But Marchese said when the time to renew their lease arose, the urge to grow was strong. When he came across the over 200 year old Queen Street heritage building, the opportunity simply could not be passed over.
“It took over nine months to renovate but it was worth it,” said Marchese. “We wanted to preserve the unique and distinct characteristics of the building while bringing it into the modern century with details suited for a world class Italian restaurant.”
Today, La Scala holds over 60 seats inside the multi-room restaurant as well as room for another 30 on the pergola adorned patio and a private functions space – appropriately dubbed the Tuscan Room – which seats up to 30 and is available for intimate group parties, weddings and events. And though the building has been nurtured, many of the original distinct characteristics have remained preserved in creative and functional ways; including a once hidden vault that was discovered during renovations and now serves as a beautiful semi-exposed wine cellar adjacent to the dining room.
“I like to think about the old heritage [of the building] and the history of it,” said Marchese. “The floors, the fireplaces, the ceilings – the old fancy plaster ceilings – are all original.” The building also features a parking lot behind the restaurant and free parking for patrons – a rarity in the downtown St. Catharines dining scene.
But Marchese’s drive to preserve old heritage reaches far past his interior renovating skills and creative eye. His dedication to authentic slow cooking techniques, hands on ownership and almost entirely made in house food is another reason why La Scala is an unforgettable dining experience.
“We prepare everything from scratch,” said Marchese. “Homemade pastas, sauces, dressings, everything is from scratch. Our ravioli, our gnocchi is all handmade.”
“I know with how today is going, everything is changing; everything is fast and franchised, but I am still trying to keep my old slow cooking technique,” said Marchese. “We are hoping that people hold on to that and that people in the Niagara Region stick to and appreciate places like us.”
Marchese as well sources the majority of his produce from local farmers and suppliers when seasonally appropriate; personally venturing out into the markets to shop daily to ensure only the finest ingredients make their way into his kitchen. “I shop every day and I handpick all of my produce,” said Marchese. “I will go to Lococos [in Niagara Falls] because they have lots and it is always fresh. I can handpick the best.”
This dedication to utilizing fresh and seasonal local produce is reflected in La Scala’s evolving menus. Marchese’s said he encourages his chef Preston Maxwell to embrace the seasons, altering their staple heavy menu twice annually – for both the Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter seasons.
Aside from their standard menu, La Scala offers weekly specials which feature alternative menus designed for trying something new. On Wednesdays, couples are encouraged to take advantage of their four course date night menu for only $59 dollars per couple; Thursdays Tapas Menu is the perfect opportunity for patrons to sample a variety of favourites from the menu in small plate style for a low cost.
La Scala will as well host a variety of theme nights throughout the year; including their charity event A Night in Tuscany which will feature a six course menu paired with six Tuscan wines for $100 dollars per person. The event will also include live music throughout dinner.
A percentage of the profits will go to support the not for profit organization Community Care. “We see a lot of homeless people [downtown St. Catharines] and we are trying to help a little bit in any way we can,” said Marchese.
Theme nights are in planning to be hosted every few months – each focusing on a different region of Italy – but at a lower price point for customers.
Marchese said he hopes that these theme nights will get locals excited about dining in downtown St. Catharines and encourage people to not be afraid to head downtown for dinner. Marchese said he is not only actively involved and dedicated to the recreation and preservation of his own building, but on the overall improvement of the downtown core.
“[Business] is turning in a good way,” said Marchese. “The Arts Centre has helped me tremendously; and there are a lot of great places now downtown. But we need to change and we need to light up downtown. It should be like Broadway; it should be lit up and unintimidating whether you are a seventy year old out for dinner or a young twenty year old woman. The people are talking – and we want everyone to feel safe when they are walking downtown.”
Interested in learning more about Italian cuisine in Niagara? Check out our article on Kitchen76 about the head chef Justin Lesso’s creations – here