Bistro di Madre Piccola staff photo – courtesy Bistro di Madre.
by Jennifer Lavallee
Morinville News Correspondent
It’s been three years since Deepthi Pelenage, owner of the Bistro di Madre Piccola, took a risk by opening a restaurant in the Town of Morinville. The Bistro’s menu, as Pelenage describes it, brings international food to the Town, with a flair of Italian.
Pelenage, who owns the business with his wife and brother, works at the Bistro every day, from morning until night; the place is undoubtedly his home away from home.
Nestled on 100 Avenue between the MuniWare building and Higher Grounds coffee shop, the Bistro adds an element of charm to the street with its new, striped awning and distinctive name. The restaurant is a large building that seats about 100 people. Low, comfortable lighting, a large copper-topped fireplace, a noticeably fully stocked bar, and a motif that gives a nod to massive ships from days past sets the tone of the room.
The atmosphere, however, is set by Pelenage himself.
Greeting his customers at the door, Deepthi Pelenage channels decades’ worth of experience in the hospitality industry to honour people who walk into his restaurant. If you ask any of his regulars they’ll tell you—Deepthi is the real deal.
One of the interesting things about Pelenage is that he is just as international as his menu. Growing up in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, Pelenage spent his childhood experiencing life on a hot, tropical island in South Asia.
The country was popular with European tourists at that time, but by the 1980s things changed. Sri Lanka broke out into civil war; “that’s when we chose to leave,” Pelenage said in an interview. The restauranteur was in his late teens by then and said his country was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live so he and his family (his parents and siblings) fled.
The departure marked the beginning of Pelenage’s journey around the globe, at first taking him to places like Bahrain, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. He later secured a job in the Philippines where he met his wife. Shortly after that they started a family.
Wanting to provide the best for his children, Pelenage once again set off to work abroad, having found an excellent employment opportunity in Bermuda, of all places.
“It was good there,” explained Pelenage, “but [under their work visas], you couldn’t expect to have your family with you.”
“There are lots of Canadian influences in Bermuda, and they suggested I look at immigrating to Canada,” Pelenage said, noting he was attracted to Canada because it seemed like a safe place to live with good opportunities for education.
Through a friend, in 2011, Pelenage found employment in Morinville at Don’s Bistro, which was a restaurant located in the same building as where Bistro di Madre Piccola is today. Though he was still away from his family, Pelenage made it his goal to get them here, so he got to work.
For two years he worked hard and sent money back home. In 2013, however, he was faced with some bad news; Don’s Bistro was closing down. Because of stipulations in his work visa, Pelenage said this presented him with only two options: leave Canada or start a restaurant in the same location as where he was working before.
Obviously, he chose the latter.
Pelenage, along with his brother, Pamitha (who was also living in the area) put together everything they had to start a new restaurant. Friends and family chipped in whatever they could. People from the many countries he had lived in and worked in collectively sent contributions to make Pelenage’s dream come true. “People sent $1,000 here or $2,000 there,” he explained, “I thought, this is a huge challenge, but let’s do it.”
That is how Bistro di Madre Piccola was born. And now, three years later, Pelenage is a permanent resident of Canada. His family—his wife and three children—are also here and they work hard every day in their restaurant.
When Pelenage talks about his new hometown he says, “[people from Morinville in particular] are so good to us. Of all the places we’ve been, here is where I feel like people care for us and talk about us the most.”
There are challenges, though. “It’s hard to get the word out of what we have available [in the restaurant],” noted Pelenage, describing the effort he and his staff go to make the Bistro work. “We make every single thing from scratch,” he said, from sauces and glazes to desserts, and main courses.
Bistro di Madre Piccola is open for buffet brunch on Sundays and has lunch specials throughout the week. They have a kid’s menu and will even accommodate special requests and catering.
Pelenage said the menu has a flair for Italian food because of his brother-in-law, Gayan Ediriweera, one of the restaurant’s chef’s, who cooked in Italy for years. Ediriweera brought his skills for the cuisine with him to Canada and even speaks fluent Italian to the delight of some of their customers. Another familiar face at the Bistro is Jana Samaraweera, a childhood friend of Pelenage from Sri Lanka, who by coincidence reconnected with him in Town.
Though it is a struggle to fill the restaurant at times, Pelenage is slowly building a solid base of loyal customers.
“We stumbled upon the Bistro when driving up and down the main road on a mission to find a good non-fast food place to dine and relax,” said Karen Murrin, one of the Bistro’s regular customers and biggest fans. “We were pleasantly surprised to find the menu and atmosphere were far beyond our expectations for a small-town restaurant.” Murrin joked that she would like to build an apartment over top of the Bistro if she could.
She and her partner, Harold Fischer, have developed such a soft spot for the restaurant they’ve made it their mission to let people know about this culinary gem in Morinville.
“This little dining oasis run by salt-of-the-earth people is a rare thing to find these days, and a thing to be proud of.”