Café Calabria

Restaurant: Café Calabria
Cuisine: Italian/Sandwiches/Deli/Desserts/Gelato/Coffee
Last visited: July 8, 2011
Location: Vancouver, BC (Commercial Drive/Grandview)
Address: 1745 Commercial Dr
Price Range: $10 or less

1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: Tres Excellent!!

Food: 4 (based on paninis I tried)
Service: 3
Ambiance: 2
Overall: 3
Additional comments:

  • Locally owned by Italian brothers
  • Specialized in paninis
  • Italian deli/meats to go
  • Fresh ingredients
  • Italian meats and cheeses
  • Customized sandwiches
  • Gelato/Some baked goods
  • Coffee/Tea
  • Neighbourhood spot
  • Spacious, lots of seating
  • Very casual/quick
  • Cash only
  • Open late
  • Mon-Sun 6am-10pm

**Recommendations: Italian Style Panini, Frank’s Special Panini

So who are the patrons at Café Calabria? The overflow of traffic from the famous sandwich shop La Grotta Del Formaggio next door? Or how about the people that bought their baked goods at Fratelli’s Bakery two doors down (next to La Grotta Del Formaggio) and want to enjoy it with a coffee? To be honest, it’s likely to be a combination of both. It’s the people that bought sandwiches and baked goods from two of Commercial Drive’s most iconic local favourites and are looking for a place to eat them, since the former are more to-go establishments. I’m making a blanket statement there, but it’s kind of obvious, and I experienced it myself.

The plan was to go to La Grotta Del Formaggio, but being that we needed a place to sit, it wasn’t the right environment. So we ended up going next door to the larger, spacious and less busy Café Calabria. I must say it wasn’t a bad plan B, but being that I’ve never tried La Grotta Del Formaggio, I can only imagine what I’m missing out on. The line up was convincing that I was missing out on a lot, but I will try again.

Café Calabria is family owned and operated by two Italian brothers. It specializes in Italian style sandwiches (paninis) and also acts as an Italian deli, mini bakery and gelato shop. The ambiance brought back memories of falling into tourist traps in Italy. I can’t say I was feeling the statues and “replica” of “Vatican City”, but at least the gelato didn’t have paper umbrellas coming out of it.

It was almost like a Subway for paninis, although some of them were premade and sitting ready in the deli cooler. It would be nice to have them all made upon order considering the competition is offering that next door. Regardless, I crossed my fingers that the lunch crowd would get fresh sandwiches since there was no line up anyways.

I stepped outside for a bit, but despite where it came from, after it’s grilled, I don’t think it made much of a difference and the sandwiches were quite good! On the other hand all the sandwiches are a bit “make at home yourself” and the quality of Italian cured meats could have been higher than what they were offering. They’re not house curing their meats or making any sandwich spreads, but it’s fresh, very simple and enjoyable.

A couple things that really bothered me was the priceless menu. I mean that literally. There are no prices listed on the menu and they only accept cash. This almost added to the “tourist trap” feelings I had, but the place has been around so long they must be offering something more than just chairs and tables for people to sit and enjoy their food.

Café Calabria offers a selection of authentic Italian pastries including Saint Honore Cake (all made by their aunt), but with Fratelli Bakery’s famous Saint Honore Cake next door (see it here), I’m not really confident it stands a chance in the baked goods department, let along the Saint Honore department. Mind you, I have yet to try the desserts at Café Calabria, as I went to Fratelli after lunch for a Saint Honore Cake :S… but they do offer gelato, which La Grotta Del Formaggio and Fratelli Bakery don’t!

On the table:

Iced Cappuccino3/6

  • $4
  • It’s unsweetened and it was incredibly strong, bold and robust in espresso flavour.
  • I should have asked them to go easy on the ice.

**Italian Style Panini4/6

  • Cappicollo (capicola), mozzarella cheese, eggplant, hot banana pepper, lettuce $7
  • This is the last of the 3 sandwiches he suggested and I found it had the boldest and strongest flavour especially since it was the spicy one too. I actually liked it the most and I’m not even a huge cappicollo fan.
  • If I don’t go into the details and specifics then yes, it is an easily enjoyed sandwich.
  • There’s not many places that serve paninis with this much filling.
  • 3:1 filling to bread ratio and a generous amount of meat and cheese is what I wanted to see in a $7 panini.
  • It was grilled and semi warm and I loved the ultra thin pressed focaccia bread that was crispy and crunchy, but still soft with a little bit of herbs.
  • It’s not the greatest focaccia and I find focaccia lends itself to the flavour of a panini, but here it was was still good, although not a main focus. I wish it was drizzled with olive oil before the grilling process too.

  • Although it was generously stuffed, I was hoping for higher quality ingredients. Yes it is fresh and all Italian, but it was more of the generic quality stuff.
  • The cappicollo, which is a fatty Italian cured pork sausage meat, wasn’t as aged as I’m used to and it was quite soft and a bit too fatty for me. It is naturally fatty, but it was a bit too much for me still.
  • The flavour was a bit salty and greasy and I’m used to it being either spicy or sweet with some freshly cracked black pepper in the slices, but this one just seemed “original” as in plain and had a limited flavour profile.
  • I kind of wish the cheese was more melted, but they gave you a lot and I could really taste it and I enjoyed it unmelted too.
  • It was salty, tangy, crunchy and meaty and the banana peppers really did it for me and gave me the kick that was missing from the cappicollo. It was also nice to cut the fatty flavour from the cappicollo.
  • I wasn’t a fan off the pickled eggplant pieces at the bottom and I was hoping for actual slices of fresh and grilled eggplant.

**Frank’s Special Panini4/6

  • Cappicollo (capicola), mortadella, mozarella cheese, eggplant, lettuce, tomato $7
  • This is the most popular sandwich.
  • Again the focaccia is thin, crispy and crunchy, yet soft, and there’s a lot of filling and a focus on meat and cheese.
  • This had way more mortadella than cappicollo, so it didn’t taste as fatty and was almost more ham like.
  • Mortadella is a cheaper cured meat and it tastes like bologna and it was probably the saltiest of the three sandwiches, but not too salty either.
  • It had a generous layer of ooey gooey fresh mozzarella cheese so that helped to balance out the saltiness.
  • Again the mortadella wasn’t seasoned, but there was some whole toasted cumin seeds sprinkled over top which gave it a nice aromatic smokiness and spice. It’s not spicy though.
  • I did like the grilled romaine and tomato to keep it fresh, but again I wasn’t a fan of the tangy pickled eggplants.
  • I would have preferred fresh slices of eggplant grilled with Rosemary and olive oil.
  • A drizzle of olive oil on the focacccia before pressing it would be ideal too.

House Special Panini3/6

  • Prosciutto, Bocconcini Cheese, Lettuce, Tomato $7
  • This was the most obvious of the three and I loved the thin, crunchy and crispy bread again with a soft inside.
  • I wasn’t a fan of the romaine lettuce in this and I expected to see basil leaves and even some balsamic vinegar or pesto spread. It was just lacking in flavour.
  • It was very simple and there was a ton of prosciutto which I love, but it wasn’t very aged or cured so it was a bit mild in flavour.
  • It was buttery and sliced quite thinly, and it was decent prosciutto, but not amazing. I could taste it the most out of all the ingredients.
  • It was a good sandwich, and I like prosciutto the most out of the three meats I had, so I expected to like this one the best. However, I found it too “make at home” so I probably wouldn’t order it again and the other two sandwiches just had more flavour.

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Caffe Calabria on Urbanspoon

12 Comments

  • Cafe Calabria is definitely a one of a kind. It was my staple cafe for years when I lived on the Drive. The food and coffee are good but like any great Italian cafe you go there for the community!
    Anytime I dropped in I was guaranteed to run into at least 5-6 people I knew and after a while you start to be treated like family.
    It’s been 7 years since I moved away from that area and still to this day if I pop in Frank and Vinnie will always find time to sit down and find out what I’ve been up to, and I’ll run into some of the same regulars.
    Great food is one thing but sometimes it is all about the experience!

  • Bow says:

    Please, Mijune don’t equate mortadella w. bologna…good mortadella( w. pistachios) is delicate and delicious; it’s less salty. Capicollo is unique ‘cos it comes from the neck(more and more Chinese restaurants are cooking uncured pork neck). I’m glad you tried this place(the owner gets really pissed if you buy from Grotta and mistakenly sit on his chairs). The Frank’s Special is uber popular due to melted cheese. I appreciate the Calabria but I buy at Grotta del Formaggio(I think it’s better).

  • Mijune says:

    @Heather Goldsworthy Photographer – First off… OMG your work is stunning!! but yes, I agree with you.. lots of places on Commercial Drive are community based and I think that’s great. However I’m not from that area, so if I go I’ll likely run into no one and just be there for the experience, food and company I’m with. It is cute though and I’m glad you have such fond memories of it! You should re-visit! 🙂

    @Bow – lol yes they’re different, but in this case the mortadella tasted like bologna. they do have a similar flavour for me. I mean this mortaella was not the gourmet kind, but just the standard “grocery store” kind. I haven’t had it with pistachios and this definitely had none. I REALLY have to try Grotta del Formaggio, but I’m really happy you liked this place too.. ppl seem to not like it after reading some reviews.. but i think it’s mainly due to service and not the food.

  • Kathryn says:

    I went in there once but didn’t actually get a chance to try anything because the service was so rude/frightening

  • Bow says:

    Yes, service at the Calabria can be definitely grumpy and humorless.

  • Mijune says:

    @Kathryn – you and almost everyone else on Urbanspoon! It seems like a lot of people complain about the service here… which is unfortunate since it’s located in such a community based area. Yikes.

    @Bow – ugh… that sucks.

  • LotusRapper says:

    @Bow: whatever you do, *never* sit at their sidewalk tables with foods/bevvies of any sort from other stores. Calabria’s owners will ream you out for that (I’ve seen it happen).

    But, their foods are good. I like the kitsch too 🙂

  • Mijune says:

    @lotusRapper – Yup.. that’s what I thought… that’s why I stressed in the intro that Fratelli’s and La Grotta is next door and “borrowing” chairs and tables from Cafe Calabria is bound to happen. I’d be pissed to if I was the owners, but I wouldn’t be rude about it. I’d just put signs up everywhere.

  • Ducky says:

    You’ve been eating a lot near my office lately it seems… I am La Grotta fan when I started working on the Drive I was eating a Panini from there three times a week; you should defiantly try it soon so you can compare the two.

  • LotusRapper says:

    @Mijune – hey I guess that goes with the territories. What’s wrong with them showing a little um, emotion ….. eh ? We should just be glad that’s as far as they go to show their displeasure, lol.

  • Linda says:

    i always pass by this place but have never walked in because the place seemed to look a bit too tacky and the guys sitting in the front look so intimidating!

    i can’t believe this place doesn’t have price tags and they only accept cash – how are you supposed to know if you could pay for the stuff! lol

    the sandwiches look delish though and i love the meat to bread ratio lol maybe next time i drop by fratelli’s, i’ll swing by cafe calabria 🙂

  • Mijune says:

    @ducky – i will for sure! Have you been to Cafe Calabria to try their paninis?

    @LF – true!

    @Linda – lol.. yeah it’s quite “touristy” looking. I know!! they said the menu board guys forgot to tack on the prices.. but even so they should have a print out and out it on the counter.. or just write it in with chalk!

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