By: Megan Pasche

[box type=”shadow”]Trattoria: an Italian term for a small casual restaurant. Traditionally, a family run establishment that offers simple, plentiful food. The focus is generally on the best of local Italian food rather than adopting a global cuisine. Recipes may be centuries old and be a tribute to the long history of great Italian food.[/box]

Nestled in a century old building on Church Street in St. Catharines, sits Mele Trattoria, downtown’s newest delicious addition to a growing array of amazing, eclectic restaurants. Mele Trattoria serves the kind of food you might recognize from your Nonna’s kitchen: authentic Italian dishes made from recipes passed down generation to generation. Everything is made to order, and you can taste the freshness. It’s a quaint, intimate restaurant that invites conversation, while sipping on an espresso or a glass of wine and just really enjoying the taste of good food.

Chef and Owner Leo Mele notes that local produce is used as much as possible and the meats come from a butcher shop just outside of Toronto. Visible from a window in the restaurant, are some heirloom tomato plants growing in a tiny garden in the back. Mele said he has several more plants growing at home. Makes sense, as he declared them to be his favourite ingredient to use in his dishes. It doesn’t get much fresher than that. Many items on the menu are also marked D.O.P, which stands for “protected destination of origin”. Essentially, what this means is that the product comes from a specific geographical area in Italy. It is a standard of quality, excellence and originality: basically the best of the best. All the cheeses used at Mele Trattoria are certified D.O.P and you can taste the difference.

Chef Mele has spent over 20 years working in various kitchens; always in Italian restaurants. He completed two years at George Brown and two years at Niagara College, and he spent three months working in a restaurant in Italy, just outside of Rome. When asked why he wanted to open Mele Trattoria, he said, “I felt like it was time for me to go out on my own and give people my take on Italian food.” He emphasized that his mother has been a huge influence on his cooking style and that all his recipes are dishes he grew up eating, and is now sharing with others.

The menu will be changing on a seasonal basis, but one item will likely remain a staple: the housemade lasagna. Mele named it as the “must try” dish. It is made Calabrese style, with hand rolled mini meatballs, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmigiano reggiano D.O.P. The menu also offers gluten free options for those that may have food sensitivities.

The dish I tried was the spaghetti pomodoro: it was made with delicious fresh spaghetti, tomato and basil pecorino Romano D.O.P. It was wonderful and the difference between fresh made pasta and packaged pasta is very evident to the taste buds. For dessert, I tried a pistachio gelato, and it was flavourful and smooth, the perfect ending to the meal.

The service at the restaurant was great and the atmosphere was casual and relaxed. Italian songs serenaded us throughout the meal and paintings of fruits, veggies and wine done by local artists adorned the walls. The restaurant got a facelift before opening, and the interior has been totally redone. There is a new bar, new paint, new light fixtures and a whole new heating and cooling system.

A lovely patio is hidden out back, fences and climbing vines creating the perfect amount of privacy. Coming soon to the patio will be a seasonal wood-fired pizza oven. The smell of pizza cooking on the patio is sure to draw in hungry patrons from far and wide, and once Chef Mele gets the oven and concocts the perfect pizza, it will be added to the menu.

Mele Trattoria is a great addition to the St. Catharines downtown-dining scene. The prices are reasonable, the service is friendly and above all, the food is amazing!

Mele Trattoria is Niagara’s first trattoria, and it is located at 26 Church Street in St. Catharines. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 905-685-6353. There is free corking on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. More information is available online from their website at www.meletrattoria.com