A new casual Italian restaurant called Knuckles Cantine et Vins landed in Villeray earlier this month. “We opened on the first day of confinement this month,” says owner Matthew Shefler, previously a bartender at Le Mousso. “I guess we don’t like to do things the usual way, or maybe there is still a 14-year-old punk inside of me somewhere.”
The restaurant’s name is a nod to the shape of its main attraction: the panzerotti, a golden, deep-fried pocket of dough loaded with tomatoes and cheese. “My grandfather is from Bari, in the south of Italy, where these are originally from. Over there, they are sold on street corners everywhere,” Shefler says.
Though not exactly dispensing its creations on the street, Knuckles is located on a corner at the intersection of Jarry East and Henri-Julien, in a space once occupied by what, in Shefler’s words, was a “completely destroyed” dépanneur. “The ceilings, floors, plumbing, everything had to be redone. I don’t think most people would have signed the lease for a place in that condition, but it felt right to me,” he says.
The space has been entirely revamped to accommodate a kitchen right at the entrance so passersby can watch as bits of dough metamorphose into pillows of molten cheese, and a big table that seats 16. “When this social distancing stuff is over, we’d really like to have everyone eating together. There are no private tables for two here,” he says.
Across the street from Knuckles, on what is becoming an increasingly popular strip for new restaurants, is Mediterranean aperitivo bar Etna. A couple of steps west is pizzeria Vesta. Hybrid restaurant-café-wine bar-grocery counter Lundis au Soleil isn’t far off either. “I’ve become friends with the people at Etna. When we spoke about me potentially taking the spot across the street, they said, ‘The more, the merrier.’ That’s my thinking, too. We really want this street to turn into a hotspot,” Shefler says.
But not everyone was as thrilled about Knuckles’ arrival. A few days after officially opening, the new restaurant posted a story to its Instagram account showing that its window had been vandalized with Bill 101 insignia, referencing the province’s French Language Charter, a 1977 law that mandated French be the official language of the province’s government and courts, that immigrants send their children to French schools, and, notably for this instance, that French lettering be featured more prominently than English on public signage.
The following was translated from French into English from Knuckle’s Instagram story:
“To the person who drew a beautiful ‘101’ on my window, I say: Our name is Knuckles Cantine et Vins. 75% of our sign is in French. Our menu is in French and we serve our customers in French. On top of that, all our vegetables are purchased at Chez Nino, from Quebec suppliers. At the corner of Christophe-Colomb and Jarry there is a business that you might go to several times a month that’s called IGA, the Independent Grocers Alliance. Their head office is in Chicago, Illinois. Pick your battles?”
Commenting on the vandalism, Shefler said, “There are many businesses on this street that don’t use French on their signage, but they didn’t get mad at that because they are in Italian or Vietnamese, not English. Anyway, nothing came of it. We cleaned it off the day after, and I installed cameras. I didn’t let it bother me more than that.”
He really hasn’t: Knuckles continues to ramp up its takeout offering with fresh pastas, such as ricotta cappelletti and spaghetti alla chitarra with chanterelles and parmesan, and veggie dishes, like lemon caraway eggplant and dill buttermilk leeks, all courtesy of chef Vincent Lévesque-Lepage (formerly of Hoogan & Beaufort).
Also in the offing is a rotating selection of wines offered at “honest” prices, Shefler says. “Most restaurants charge a markup anywhere between 1.7 and 2.6, usually around 2.3. What I do for markup — which is the lowest I’ve seen yet — is 1.5 on the price that I buy it at. So bottles that I see for $45 elsewhere, we sell for $36.” For now, the wines must be picked up in person, but the goal is to eventually come out with a delivery app: “I’m working on a Knuckles app with Koomi, my POS provider, because I’d really love to be able to deliver wine,” Shefler says. “I mean, what’s better than wine sent to your door?”
Knuckles Cantine et Vins is open at 241 Jarry East from 12 to 10 p.m.