The historical mural on the east wall of Il Vagabondo Ristorante, painted by local artist Karole Marois, is a colourful harbinger of the rich and traditional tastes one can expect to savour inside this decades-old Italian eatery. Located in a quiet but up-and-coming residential neighbourhood at the intersection of Beechwood and Marier, a couple of blocks east of Ottawa’s New Edinburgh community, Il Vagabondo greets guests with the familiar and hearty aromas of garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, and fresh lime – cornerstones of classic Italian cuisine.
Romance is in the air when one dines surrounded by the warm reds and browns of this restaurant’s walls. With Vivaldi’s music accompanying every meal, one is immediately transported back to the sumptuous food culture of classical Italy and Venice.
Il Vagabondo’s owner, Adriana Roy, dreams of visiting Italy and Venice one day, but until then she is happy serving homemade pastas, rich soups and other popular
Italian fare to her loyal customers with a generous smile. “I did many things here to make Il Vagabondo more accessible,” Adriana explains. “When I took over in the year 2,000, I rebuilt Il Vagabondo from the steps all the way up. I did it myself, with no help. I’m very proud of that and happy to see my customers and to serve them – whatever makes people happy.”
Under Adriana’s charge, Il Vagabondo’s menu grew to include an appetizing array of pasta dishes (think cannelloni, ravioli, lasagna and more), meat and fish dishes (veal, steak, chicken), vegetable soups and Italian appetizers like bruschetta, grilled shrimp, fried zucchini and mussels marinara.
“Slowly I introduced new types of dishes every day and the customers loved it. The tastes were simple and yet sophisticated,” Adriana says, “which increased the popularity of the dishes.” There are also plenty of delectable desserts and coffee to round out your meal.
Adriana’s knack for experimentation and her natural-born instincts made it easy for her to cook light and flavourful yet rich food. And all the herbs used come from Adriana’s own backyard garden.
Despite the stiff and growing competition that’s forcing other neighbourhood restaurants to close shop, Adriana has kept the restaurant’s doors open on sheer grit and hard work. “Il Vagabondo is my little Italy, my little baby,” she says passionately. “In 25 years, I have never taken a single day off.”
Adriana grew up on a farm in Chile and watched her mother cook hearty and delicious meals for their large family with ingredients that were grown right outside their door. “My mother knew how to make dishes that were creative, nourishing and fun for my younger siblings to keep them happy and full,” she recalls. “She didn’t have any recipes. She cooked with her heart, her instincts and fresh farm produce. So I learned to cook from the best teacher.”
The richness of the Earth’s produce and the creativity of her mother’s dishes inspired Adriana to take up a position as a cook in an Italian dignitary’s home when she was in her teens. Thus began Adriana’s love for all things Italian – starting from the food to the language, culture and even Italian soap operas.
Blessed with the heart of a wanderer, Adriana travelled to Ottawa in her thirties with just an air ticket and $10 in her pocket. A hard worker and a hairdresser as well, Adriana tried her hand at several jobs before finding work at Il Vagabondo in the ’90s. At the time, the restaurant was under the original ownership of Angelo Cappellazi and his brothers, who started the business in 1979.
“Angelo was a very nice man. He offered me a cappuccino on the day I met him, and I never left after that,” Adriana fondly remembers. “I started off as an assistant to the chef in 1990. Later that year the chef fell ill and six months later I took over the position of head chef.”
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