When I think of Italian restaurant chains, I think of Olive Garden, Carraba's or Macaroni Grill - all three places that seem to be popular with people, but there is probably much better Italian food in the vicinity if you just looked. That's why I went to Pacini with a little bit of apprehension when we went out for lunch on my recent trip to Montreal.
Pacini is a 25-restaurant chain with franchise locations throughout Quebec. The first Pacini was opened nearly 30 years ago by Pierre Marc Trembley. Trembley began to sell franchises for Pacini locations about 20 years ago. In April, Pacini opened a 26th location - the first one outside of Quebec in Calgary. The Pacini restaurants in Quebec and Calgary now employ close to 900 people and have revenues of over $34 million (Canadian) annually.
One of the big draws for Pacini is their trademarked "Bread Bar". These "bars a pain" as they're known in French feature a number of fresh baked breads, sliced and put in baskets to choose from. The customer then gets their choice of a number of different types of butter - herb butter, garlic butter, plain butter, etc. - and then they can toast the bread on a open flame grill. It's a unique concept and definitely one that I've never encountered before.
Another unique thing about Pacini is that they actually run their own culinary school in the small Italian town of Bassano del Grappa situated near Venice. Noted Italian chef Frederick St.-Aubin heads "L'Acadamie Culinaire Pacini". Not only is the culinary school a source for chefs for Pacini, it also acts as a test kitchen for many of the dishes that either have been or will be featured at Pacini restaurants. I don't think they're doing that at Olive Garden these days.
We took a couple vehicles to the Pacini location in suburban Repentigny, near our office northeast of Montreal (see map). The Repentigny Pacini is located in a strip mall that looks similar to any strip mall you'd find across America - only everything was signed in French (the northeast side of Montreal is highly French Canadian). A brisk lunch crowd was in the contemporary decored restaurant. There were 10 of us for lunch and we took two large table next to each other - half of the group sitting in booth seats, the remaining number of us sitting on comfortable and sturdy chairs.
The menu at Pacini is very diverse with rich pasta dishes, rustic pizzas and also features a number of breakfast specialties - something you don't expect at an Italian restaurant. All orders at Pacini come with your choice of soups of the day and the unlimited Bread Bar. One of my colleagues, Todd, said, "The food is pretty good for a chain. But the Bread Bar is the draw."
The waiter brought out lunch menus for us to look over, but after a quick conversation in French with my boss, Daniel, he went back and retrieved the full dinner menu. Daniel said, "The lunch menu is sort of limited and they'll make anything at anytime here." All right, that was fine with me.
I'd had a pretty good sized breakfast just about three hours prior so I wasn't looking to get anything heavy for lunch. One thing that caught my eye was the Salade Italienne, Pacini's Italian Salad that featured mixed lettuce greens topped with artichoke hearts, spicy capicollo ham, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes. They finish the salad off with a balasamic and roasted garlic dressing. While others at the table were going with a pasta dish, I thought that would be enough for me. I also had my choice of the soup du joir, so I went with a cup of the cream of broccoli soup.
Then it was time for the bread bar. I went up with my colleague, Todd, and he showed me the drill. They have a cabinet that houses about six different types of sliced bread stored behind glass doors. You pick your bread and then you have your choice of differently types of whipped butter with seasonings to put on the bread. Once you get your choice of bread and spread on your choice of butter, you turn to this open grill with a fan hood above the grill. One side of the grill is hotter than the other as the gas is turned up a little more for a quicker toasting. But I also found that the butter will drip off more so than if you do it on the cooler side of the grill. The bread was soft and fresh and I went with a slice of the sesame seed and a slice of the roasted onion bread. I put the herb butter on the sesame seed slice and the garlic butter on the roasted onion slice. It was a pretty neat concept - and I wondered why I hadn't seen something like that in the States.
My cream of broccoli soup was good, served in a small cup. I could dip my bread in the soup cup and it was even more delicious. And it wasn't long before our entrees, including my salad showed up at the table.
The plate of lettuce and toppings was overly generous. The greens were fresh as were the artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. I especially liked the spicy capicollo they had. It was deli fresh and very good.
I was asking some of my colleagues if their pasta dishes were good. My colleague from the San Francisco Bay Area, Jon - who had the fettuccine linguine topped with shrimp - said, "Yeah, mine's very good! Surprisingly very good." My other colleagues were in agreement. The pasta dishes did look good. My colleague, Simon, who is from Montreal, told me, "Pacini's not the best Italian in town, but for a quick lunch fix it's pretty good."
Yeah, I would say Pacini was pretty good. I thoroughly enjoyed my salad as it reminded me of a St. Louis-style salad with wonderful flavor and generous portions. Pacini may not be the first choice for Italian for me if I were to go back to Montreal on my own and search out a good Italian restaurant, but if nothing else was available and you were hungry, Pacini would work just great. It sparkles against the countless and faceless Italian restaurant chains we have in the states.