At The Cook’s Shop in Windsor, Ontario, which opened more than 40 years ago, some things haven’t changed. The cellar-level restaurant is still dimly lit, salad is complimentary with your meal, and dishes like escargots forestiere endure.
But some things have changed at the Italian trattoria, including new dishes inspired by the owner’s grandmother with a contemporary spin, a refreshed interior, and a new proprietor.
Three years ago, Spencer Dawson took over from the original owner, Lino Catroppa, a Rome native who acquired the VMY Hotel in the late 1970s, renovated the 1908 building that was once one of the coveted addresses in town, and opened The Cook’s Shop in 1980.
Over the years, Catroppa built up The Cook’s Shop as a destination, especially for suitors looking to pop the question and for couples returning to celebrate their happy union. Thirty-nine years after opening, Catroppa started planning his retirement and began looking for someone to carry on his legacy.
Dawson, whose own parents got engaged at The Cook’s Shop in 1987, took over in July 2019.
The Cook’s Shop is still a short descent below ground, past the grapevine-covered facade. Walking into the intimate space, you leave behind Windsor’s main drag, Ouellette Avenue, and step into a world of Italian romance (but you don’t need to be coupled up to enjoy the ambience).
There may be black tablecloths, candlelight, and an air of fine dining, but there is something homey and comforting about The Cook’s Shop. The room is small, with fewer than 15 tables, but the way they are positioned (one time we were seated in a corner, and another time we were between the bar and the wine cellar) makes you feel like you have your own space.
Before you even get started with any antipasti, have the crusty-on-the-outside, soft-as-clouds- on-the-inside bread. It’s accompanied by whipped garlic butter, and it’s easy to demolish a whole basket and ask for another, like we did. The bread is the recipe of Dawson’s nonna, and it is not to be cast aside like the sad bread at lesser restaurants.
For the antipasti course, we tried the polpette and aforementioned escargots forestiere. The polpette were shaped into logs that looked more like kafta but were decidedly Italian, punctuated by Parmesan and served atop a bracing and balanced tomato sauce (perfect for dipping not only the polpette but also that divine bread). French jumbo snails are served out of the shell but paired with equally earthy mushrooms and served in a different kind of shell, one made out of phyllo pastry, the entire dish speckled with Parmesan.
The pastas were universally impressive and beautifully prepared. Most of the pastas, except for the linguine and spaghetti, are made in-house.
The gnocchi Gorgonzola boasts potato dumplings cooked to the level of supple and sumptuous and bathed in a rich white wine-and-Gorgonzola cheese sauce. It’s dressed simply with fresh spinach and toasted walnuts, rounding out the well-composed dish that expertly brings together texture and flavor.
The linguine and clams, a Cook’s Shop favorite since the beginning, comes with white wine sauce or the house tomato sauce. We opted for the former, and we suggest you do the same because the delicate sauce complements the brininess of the clams, making you feel like you’re feasting on pasta on the coast of Italy. Another dish inspired by Dawson’s nonna is the cavatelli Bolognese.
The ricotta cavatelli are topped with a generous amount of hearty Bolognese sauce to coat each hand-rolled piece. The Bolognese left quite an impression — I ordered a similar dish elsewhere not too long afterward and wished I had Nonna’s Bolognese instead.
On the entree side, we tried a newer Cook’s Shop menu addition, the risotto ai frutti di mare. While it wasn’t as creamy as risottos should be, the abundance of shrimp, mussels, and scallops, all artfully plated and perfectly accentuated by white wine and lemon zest, made us forgive that the risotto was a little bit too al dente.
Risotto is one of the sides offered with the meat and fish dishes, and the pea and mushroom one we got with the salmon and Scaloppine Piccata was perfect. Those two entrees were well done, but the standout for us was the Australian Lamb Rack, which was marinated in rosemary and garlic and cooked medium — at the suggestion of our server — and was on point.
Service was friendly and warm, if a bit spotty at times; for instance, our entrees came quickly after the pasta course, but then there was a long gap between that and dessert, and then another time I waited a while before I could order a glass of wine, and then we were left to our own devices to choose.
We would have liked a bit more guidance through the wine list when we asked for suggestions (if you’re looking for rosé, unless you like white Zinfandel you’re out of luck, and the wines by the glass list is unfortunately brief) so we opted for a few cocktails, which were refreshing, creative, and Italian-inspired, such as the Raspberry Teani, with Chambord, amaretto, and black tea.
For dessert, it’ll be tempting to go with the tried-and-true tiramisu, and other than an aggressive amount of cocoa powder on top, it is a respectable iteration, with delicate ladyfinger cookies packing plenty of espresso flavor amid layers of mascarpone cheese. However, we were more impressed by the espresso creme brulee and poached pears, the latter a stunning image on the plate with two pear halves soaked in red wine standing tall and proud amid a dramatic swipe of garnet berry sauce and fresh mint leaves strewn about.
The Cook’s Shop motto is “Semper idem,” which translates to “Always the same,” or “Never change,” but since Dawson took over, he’s incorporated some new traditions in with the old, such as more modern dishes and a patio that offers an oasis in the middle of Ouellette.
We briefly met him as he made the rounds during dinner service, and it’s clear his passion for food has brought new energy to this landmark restaurant in Windsor. We’re excited to see what he does next.
Sometimes, change is good.
This story is from the November 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.