The Rinaldo brothers bring their family’s Italian-American comfort food to Windsor Street

“We grew up around food,” says Tony Rinaldo of him and his brother, Sam. “[Our father would] make excellent home-cooked Italian meals from the recipes that my grandmother would have made.” Tony is about to launch into the background story behind his and Sam’s first bricks-and-mortar location, the freshly minted Rinaldo’s Italian American Specialties. The tale includes an extensive list of kitchens in Canada, America and Europe that both brothers have worked in, a gourmet hot-dog stand, a sandwich stall at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market — but most importantly: family recipes.

The Rinaldo family history, as Tony knows it, started in Italy. His great-grandparents emigrated from Sicily to Buffalo, New York, where his father’s family still lives today. A few generations later you’ve got two brothers in Halifax specializing in Italian-American food. Now, this can’t just be credited to growing up watching their father, Salvatore, the name behind the beloved Salvatore’s Pizzaiolo Trattoria in the Hydrostone. Aunt Fran deserves some credit, too. “All our recipes are based off our family’s food,” says Tony. “My Aunt [Fran] is still alive, so I call her all the time, and I’m asking about different family recipes.”

I’ve visited Rinaldo’s several times, trying many of the menu items prior to sitting down to chat with Tony. My most recent visit was on a Friday night when the restaurant was full to the brim and humming with conversation. The crowd is definitely local, and given the central location, just next to the hectic intersection of Windsor and Cunard Streets, I’d bet Rinaldo’s will become a neighbourhood haunt in no time. The address, casual interior and menu full of comforting carbs has definitely set Rinaldo’s up with some staying power.

Tony and Sam Rinaldo

Tony and I talk about menu staples and what might change over time. As most restaurateurs do, they plan on making seasonal changes while keeping the items that are synonymous with their brand: hero sandwiches (meatball, eggplant and chicken parmesan), pizzas, and pastas made from scratch. “The meatball [hero] is never going to go away,” says Tony. “People love it.” And for good reason. It’s a house-made bun topped with tomato sauce, meatballs (Aunt Fran’s recipe), oozing mozzarella, Parmesan, olives and roasted garlic mayo. This thing is insanely tasty.

The mozzarella sticks are easily becoming my favourite appetizer in Halifax. They’re made with a perfectly crispy batter and super-stretchy, melty mozzarella (check the restaurant’s social media to see just how long one of these babies can stretch), then they’re topped with chopped parsley before being plated with herbed sour cream for dipping. Appetizers are served in a very unassuming way — in plastic baskets lined with red-and-white checkered parchment paper. Other classics like Buffalo-style chicken wings with blue cheese dip and parmesan–dusted, fresh-cut fries make an appearance on the starter list, but it’s the items like the spicy cauliflower and clams casino that set Rinaldo’s apart. “The cauliflower is a play on an old Sicilian dish,” says Tony. The whole cauliflower is poached in stock, then cut into smaller pieces, breaded, deep-fried and served in a parsley sauce with lemon, honey, spicy chiles, toasted almonds and pecorino Romano cheese.

The Rinaldo brothers’ first venture together after reuniting in Halifax in 2015 was a hot-dog stand called T-Dogs. They did special events and pop-ups, eventually landing a steady gig three days per week at Good Robot Brewing Company which is still going. The first iteration of Rinaldo’s was as a food stall at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. “We were serving meatball heroes and the porchetta sandwich. That was over a year ago now. And that was good for a while,” says Tony. “Then Good Robot approached us, [saying] we could use you for a couple more nights there, and when we made the switch it was a better fit for us.” And so Sam and Tony set up shop in the small kitchen inside Good Robot’s tap room a couple nights per week and served their Italian-American-style sandwiches. They earned new customers and slowly but surely got the Rinaldo’s name out there. The prospect of a physical location was always in the backs of their minds, though, and became a reality when they took over the Good Food Emporium location at 2186 Windsor Street earlier this year and officially opened Rinaldo’s Italian American Specialties on May 23rd.

“We wanted to give it an old-school, Italian-American restaurant in the ’80s restaurant with modern touches, so that’s why we got the checkered tablecloths, neon sign,” says Tony. With the minimal decor and emphasis on red and white, along with the glow of the neon sign at night, I can feel the ’80s vibe they were going for. The interior is mostly white, with a red accent wall that holds a large chalkboard for daily specials. Tables topped with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and white overlays are spread throughout the space. There are three red vinyl booths and black-and-white photos of New York scenery and family on the walls. The dark wood floors and beams contrast with the white walls and ceiling. Lots of natural light streams in through the large windows that mostly face Windsor Street.

Portions are not small at Rinaldo’s, which is maybe a nod to the American side of the brothers’ heritage. The cavatelli and meatballs is a heaping bowl of hand-made cavatelli (small pasta shells that some say look like mini hot dog buns) that are tossed in tomato sauce and topped with two large and deliciously juicy meatballs and a generous spoonful of ricotta cheese. As soon as it’s placed in front of you, you’re asking for a takeout container. It’s the same for the chicken Parmesan, which arrives at the table in two dishes. The first is a sizeable plate of crispy breaded chicken (two pieces) smothered in tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese that’s decorated with whole fresh basil leaves. The second is an actual bowl of house-made tagliarini aglio olio (a long type of ribbon pasta tossed in olive oil, sautéed garlic, Parmesan and fresh parsley). This dish is a food coma in the best way. The tagliarini is super garlicky and addictive, and the chicken is juicy inside and perfectly crispy on the outside.

Now, about that pizza. Yes, the crust is the family recipe. No, I can’t have it (so neither can you). There are seven pizzas to choose from on the Rinaldo’s menu, and all except for the classic are named after someone in, or close to, the family (something Salvatore also did at his restaurant). I’m more than happy with the classic, which has a very crispy, garlicky thin crust (it’s brushed with garlic infused olive oil) and is topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh herbs. Pizza perfection.

If you have room for dessert, there is, of course, cannoli, a Sicilian pastry that’s made by deep-frying pastry dough in a tube shape and filling it with delicious, sweetened creamy ricotta cheese. Rinaldo’s cannoli are served with chocolate pistoles and dusted with icing sugar. This is a very appropriate ending to any Italian-American meal. Rinaldo’s has a full bar (be sure to grab an Aperol spritz) and a great wine list that’s Italian heavy and has many reasonably priced selections by the glass.