As soon as you open the door of Tavernetta, you can already smell the fresh bread, catch laughter from the staff and hear the old R&B music on the stereo. Modern paintings and pictures from local artists are displayed on the walls. It is Thursday afternoon and the staff are getting ready for dinner.
But, this is not your ordinary restaurant.
Two years ago, Chris McKinnon leased an old bungalow on Edmonton Trail. But now, he’s turned the home into Tavernetta, a cozy Italian restaurant that pays tribute to the neighbourhood’s history.
McKinnon was born in Ottawa and moved to Calgary in 1981 with his family and his older brother. He dreamed of becoming a cowboy and owning a ranch, but this quickly changed when he got into high school and got his first restaurant job.
After gaining some experience from different restaurants, such as Carriage House along Macleod Trail, and with the encouragement of his co-workers, McKinnon finally decided to have his own restaurant.
“I just genuinely want to take care of people and make them feel good and happy and give them food and beverage,” McKinnon says. He came across a two-storey bungalow of approximately 1300 sq. feet with big, bright windows. That was when he decided to start Tavernetta
“When my partner and I walked into this building for the first time, it was sort of an instant love,” McKinnon explains. “[It’s] just naturally beautiful and welcoming and comfortable and in it just sort of fit our persona and also our concept.” he says with a smile.
But it wasn’t only the charm of the house that pushed McKinnon to become the new owner of the place.
Wanting to piggyback on the history of the neighbourhood and his own background, McKinnon went for something that was in relation with who he is and how he grew up.
“This used to be part of Little Italy ... back in the days from kind of here, down the hill into Bridgeland,” he says.
Being part of that momentum, knowing that the community is still Italian, with its families and business, is one of the reasons why McKinnon wanted to be in that location.
McKinnon’s landlord previously lived in the house many years back before renting it to the previous owner, a Japanese café called Cezero Café and Bar.
Even though the bungalow was already converted to a restaurant-friendly location, McKinnon and his team added features to make it “their” restaurant.
They added a couple layers of paint, removed the curtains to let the natural light come in and rebuilt the kitchen. “The main kitchen in the center wasn't really built for sitting. We wanted people to be able to sit around the kitchen and watch all the action,” McKinnon says.
In May 2017, after a couple of months of renovation, McKinnon became co-owner and managing partner of the first Tavernetta restaurant in Calgary along with his business partner Keith Luce.
Tavernetta first opened its doors with a soft launch by inviting family, friends and neighbours, such as Heather Lemon.
Lemon and her husband have been going to the restaurant regularly since it first opened.
The couple usually visits the establishment for dinner. “It gets pretty busy at night, so we have a pro-tip and we try and come earlier as we usually come about six o'clock for dinner during the week,” Lemon says.
With traditional Italian-based roots and a touch of modernity, the restaurant will make you feel like you’re at home.
“Sprinkling of traditional with a twist of modern,” says McKinnon. “You guys have heard the music. We like to keep a good beat going and people just be able to nod their head or tap their foot and enjoy food at the same time,” he says, nodding his head to the beat of the music.
And that is where the name Tavernetta was given to the restaurant.
Tavernetta, which means little tavern in Italian, is exactly the concept that McKinnon wants to showcase. “We're hoping for a neighbourhood tavern which is a casual everyday stop in for a glass of wine or a coffee kind of place,” he says.
Adding to that, Lemon describes the restaurant as a “community staple with delicious food and a cozy, welcoming atmosphere.”
John Gilchrist, a former food writer for the Calgary Herald, loves the way Tavernetta recreates classic dishes.
“The food was creative. It was very flavorful. It was innovative. It was Italian, but it wasn't your standard Italian fare, like fettuccine alfredo or lasagna,” he says.
One of them would be the gnocchi, called Gnudi, which is an Italian dish featuring small dumplings made of potatoes or semolina. Gnudi, would the similar type of pasta but made with ricotta.
Tavernetta has the dish featured on their menu yet, the restaurant makes a softer and more delicate version of the recipe.
During the summer the restaurant opens their backyard, letting people sit outside and enjoy their meal. “The trees in the backyard are impressive because they form a canopy over that backyard to create just a lovely patio,” Gilchrist says.
It also gives their customers a chance to play some bocce ball, one of the many traditional Italian outdoor games.
With a total of 11 staff members, Tavernetta has received several awards, including two from Avenue magazine: best Italian restaurant of 2019 and top 25 best restaurants in Calgary.
Despite the awards, McKinnon’s main goal is to be a bigger part of the community. In fact, the restaurant gets its cheese and salami from two local businesses a few blocks away.
Expanding the restaurant is also one of their goals, but for now, McKinnon is happy with where he is, and that’s being able to say hi to his regulars.
“I love that, maybe that's from growing up in a small community where we knew everyone. I'd love to be able to translate that from my business.”
- By Emmanuella Kondo