La Piccola Casa

Back in June, when I attended the Italy Here festival in Sofia, I came across a booth for the Italian restaurant called La Piccola Casa. I was looking at their business card and the logo was really familiar.  I hadn’t eaten there before but I was sure that I had seen this place. Well when I turned over the card and saw the address and it all came together. The restaurant is right around the corner from my house.  I pass it almost every day.

I knew that there was a restaurant on the intersection of Boulevard Tzar Boris III and Boulevard Prof. Ivan Geshov. Angel and I had been there before many years ago with the girls and it was crap food and even worse service, so we didn’t return. Apparently, the old restaurant closed and a “real” Italian place opened in its stead.
I was excited at the possibility that an authentic Italian restaurant was within walking distance from my apartment, so Angel and I decided to check it out.

The interior of the restaurant was pretty much exactly the same as the old place, comfortable and shabby (kind of) chic with proper white table clothes and red cloth napkins, bamboo wall covering hiding imperfections, white washed wooden benches covered with black and red pillows (not visible in the photo).
I happened to be starving when we sat down, so my eyes were a bit larger than my stomach.  I ordered an mixed plate of marinated vegetables (peppers, artichokes, eggplant, olives, mushrooms) to pick ate while we perused the menu. I decided upon a Caprese, which I think can tell you a lot about a restaurant and the tagiatelle with truffles and shrimp.  Angel went for the brushetta with tomatoes and olives and the seafood bounty pizza.
The marinated vegetables were really served cold, which wasn’t pleasant and everything tasted of lemons.  It was distracting from the other flavors. I was really looking forward to the olives and artichokes, but both tasted like they were just scooped out of the jar from the fridge. Angel and I both were unimpressed.
When my caprese arrived, I recognized the presentation at once. It was similar the Sofia Hilton’s preparation, but La Piccola Casa’s was cruder and less elegant. The gouges in the tomato were not conducive to the desired fanning effect of the tomato and cheese, plus the mozzarella cheese, if you could call it that was of really poor quality as was the under ripened cold tomato (in October, so my bad for ordering out of season). 
Angel’s bruscetta was a nice balance of salty and sweet, served on crisp toasts, which was a nice surprise. I have a peeve against soggy bruscetta, served on white sandwich slices
For our next course, Angel’s pizza arrived about 10 minutes before my main. The crust was distinctly more Italian and crispy, as opposed to the soggy crust you find in at most Bulgarian pizzerias. The seafood bounty on top weren’t bad and he finished the pie.  
When my pasta finally arrived, it was cooked a tad too al dente, but the big surprise was the cream sauce, the menu made no indication that it would be SWIMMING in a heavy dense truffle cream sauce with four seriously over cooked shrimp (and the tails were not removed). Once I was served my dish the waiter disappeared without offering me fresh Parmesan or cracked black pepper. The dish needed both as the sauce was bland and I didn’t manage to finish it. Considering that the price of the pasta dish was about 13 leva, I can’t imagine that they used real truffles.
Over all, I am a bit disappointed with La Piccola Casa. Despite their manifesto about choosing the best and freshest ingredients, which was printed on the top of their menu in Bulgarian, English and Italian, I find they missed the mark a bit.  
Some of you might be surprised that I plan on returning to give it another go, but it is sheerly out of convenience.  For those of you who have ever ordered from BG menu, it takes a mind-boggling 1 hour and 20 – 30 minutes to get your order and when I get home from work at 8pm, I don’t want to have dinner at 9:30.  Piccola Casa give me the option of a quick meal with out having to trek to the center.  For this, I can look on the bright side and them another shot.
La Piccola Casa:
4 Blvd Tzar Boris III (@ Blvd. Prof. Ivan Geshov)
Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 885 650022, 0885 766464 Italian speaking: 0884 715706

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The Olive Garden

I am going to be honest, no matter how long The Olive Garden exists in Sofia, it will always remind me of the American restaurant chain of the same name. Personally, I detest The Olive Garden in the US, not because the food tastes bad; it tastes uniformly delicious where ever you go, but that is just the thing;  it is not REAL food. It is the sit down equivalent of McDonald’s. That being said, there is no assembly line kitchen in this Sofia eatery, serving packaged food. While both restaurants offer a nice selection of pasta dishes, the Bulgarian counterpart uses only fresh pasta, which is a big difference.

I had the good fortune to meet the owners, Alex, who is from Syria and Tom, an American from Boston. During my dinner, I was able to satisfy my curiosity as to the origin of the restaurant’s name. Here it goes: a while back, Alex was walking with his wife through London and in the window of a shop he saw a olive tree and thought that “The Olive Tree” would be a good name for the restaurant.  Tom, the other owner suggested that they name the place The Olive Garden because they have a garden area outside the restaurant, but Tom does have a reputation for naming places after already established American eateries.  He was one of the owners of The Black Dog, a now defunct tavern in Martha’s Vineyard Lozenetz.

The menu is comprised of comforting food that you would easily find being served at a friends dinner party: steaks, lamb chops, goulash, antipasti and pasta. The portions are hardy for neighborhood, plus reasonably priced. There is also a distinct Syrian influence representing Alex’s heritage with the tabbouleh salad, humus and falafels on the menu, which was a collaboration between the owners and their chef, who had spent 4 years working in the kitchen at a Marriott Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri and another 2 years working in Ireland before returning to Bulgaria.  Together they managed to create what I think is pretty well rounded menu that included a nice selection of international and local wines.

When I arrived at the table (I was late because I got in an fender bender during Sofia’s soaken rush hour), I was promptly served warm bread rolls with butter and an olive tapenade.  I am not a fan of butter with bread or olives for that matter, but the tapenade was quite tasty.  It could be because it wasn’t too over powering with the blend of olives and garlic. True olive lovers might have a different opinion.

We started with the humus and bruschetta.  The humus had good flavors, but was not served with pita, but flat almost tortilla like bread triangles, which was a bit of a bummer for me, because the bread we were served with the butter and tapenade was so fresh and tasty.

The brushetta for me was also a bit of a disappointment because the bread was soft and not grilled on both sides.  It had good flavors, but the the texture was a tad spongey for my taste. Yet, I was alone in my opinion because Drini and the others at the table liked it!
For main courses, everyone except Mallorie and I went with the pasta.  Because I wanted to write this review, I asked that everyone not order doubles and they actually complied. 
Mallorie’s Anitpasti, which I didn’t actually try, now that I realize it.
Koos who lives right around the corner to the restaurant is a frequent visitor and his favorite is the Carbonara.  He was spot on with his choice because it was the best pasta dish on the table, although a bit to soft for me, but that could because of the fresh pasta.
Drini ordered the Tagatelli with Salmon (not quite sure of the name) and it was good.  The salmon was tender, but sauce was lacking something.  After she seasoned it with salt, pepper and extra parmesan cheese, she said it was better.
Jason’s dish was quite interesting because he ordered the Fettucini Alfredo, which was suggested by the waiter and waitress as their favorite dish on the menu. But as you can see in the photo below, this was nothing like a true Fettucini Alfredo, which is traditionally fettucini pasta tossed with emulsified parmesan cheese and butter sauce. His was something else entirely, but that error in named doesn’t effect the taste.  It was a good dish.
Finally, I ordered the Lamb Chops with a Dijon sauce. Both Jason and I enjoyed the way that the lamb was prepared and cooked. I however objected to the sauce and this could be another error in naming.  The “dijon” sauce wasn’t even close to being mustardy. I know that there was mustard in the sauce because I saw whole mustard seeds, but the chef seemed to use whole grain mustard, rather than dijon because the kick that you get from dijon mustard was noticeably absent. Also, in reading a review from the Sofia Echo about The Olive Garden, the reviewer, who also had the lamb specifically states that he was served “three chunky” chops, while my portion of chops was only two… Hmmm.

The overall experience at The Olive Garden was good. It is not a gourmet restaurant, nor does it pretend to be. It is unpretentious, comfortable and accessible. If I spent more time in Sofia, I can easily see this being my go to place when I don’t feel like cooking. The next time I go, I will see how it works out with the kids.
I am eager for your thoughts on my review.  If you don’t agree with me let me know.  Looking forward to your comments! 
18 “Angel Kunchev” Street (@ “Dr. G Varovich” Street) 
Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 2 481 1214, +359 88 816 3232 
Hours Mon – Sun: 11:00 am – 11:00 pm
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