Nicli Antica Pizzeria
62 East Cordova Ave.
$80 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
It was a formative summer spent in Italy. I was 18 years old. Under the tutelage of glamorous older cousins, I learned many important lessons about style: White is meant for sneakers, not leather shoes (this was the 1980s); liquor should be sipped in small - preferably bitter - quantities, never quaffed (still working on that one); pizza must be eaten folded lengthwise, with the hands (sacrosanct).
Here in Vancouver, it's hard to be a stylish Italian. The city no longer lacks in the fashion department (well, it's not nearly as bad as it once was). And we could actually show the rest of the world a thing or two about cocktail culture. Yet, until now, there wasn't a single pizzeria that serves authentic Neapolitan pizza.
Ciao, Nicli Antica Pizzeria. What took you so long?
Look at all these customers - obviously starved for the real bubbly and blistered, thin-crusted deal - lined out the doorway. And they said you'd never attract the masses way over here on Gastown's grubbiest fringes. It just goes to show that if you meet a pent-up demand and are meticulous about maintaining the highest standards (as you so obviously do), people will come to enjoy great food.
Does it matter that you won't take reservations? I don't think so. Standing here at the sleek, mirrored bar with a negroni or glass of crisp falanghina while waiting for a table is half the fun. A babble of lively conversation is in the air, and everyone is dressed quite snazzily. It has the feel of an evening passeggiata, that lovely Italian ritual of strolling through the streets to see and be seen.
The room is perfect. You've taken a cavernous brick barn and broken it down into a sleek, intimate space with an arched barrel ceiling and so many shiny, white surfaces. This is high Italian, modern design.
Yes, the lighting is bright and bouncy, but attractively so (no unflattering shadows to spoil date nights). And it certainly helps to create a dramatic stage for the restaurant's most important component - the Acunto wood-fired pizza oven, imported from Napoli.
Owner Bill McCaig went all the way to California to learn how to operate this dome-ceilinged beauty. Through the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana, the North American body that certifies "Specialita Tradizionale Garantita" authenticity, he trained to become a professional pizzaiolo.
To make pizza in the true Neapolitan style, one must use a brick-lined oven that burns hard wood (Nicli uses birch) at temperatures hot enough (800 to 1,000+ degrees Fahrenheit) to bake a pizza in 90 seconds.
The pizzaiolos must learn to lift the pizza on the paddle to the ceiling (which is hotter than the floor) for split seconds - long enough to melt the cheese, but no so long that it burns. If they get lazy and lean on the paddle, the pizza will cook on an angle, torching one side while undercooking the other.
It's no wonder that so few pizzerias are certified as Vera Pizza Napoletana establishments. Pulcinella in Calgary (which is where Mr. McCaig fell in love in Neapolitan pizza) was the first VPN restaurant in Canada, although the owners have let their certification lapse. Toronto's Pizza Libretto is the only other. Nicli Antica aims to be the next. The inspectors will visit this summer.
But there are other specifications the kitchen must follow, dough being the most important. Nicli's dough is so much more than a vessel for toppings. It's light and airy with a slightly crunchy, flame-blistered cornicone (but no bitter taste of char) and a thin centre so soft it almost melts under a small ladling of sauce.
To achieve this floppy plate of perfection, Nicli uses super-fine "00' Caputo flour. (A New York-style pizza is blended with all-purpose or pastry flour to give it more structure).
It's addictively good. And so are the toppings, chosen with the same meticulous care. The sauce - bright, bold and uncompromisingly acidic - is made with hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes and just a tiny dash of salt. The cheese is a local fior de latte for now. (The kitchen will soon be stretching its own curds, and will be bringing in top-quality burrata and bufalo mozzarella.
The pizzas here are deliberately light on the sauce and toppings. The small blobs of cheese may surprise some customers. (Certain pizzas have no cheese at all). But it shows a respect for the ingredients. Take the margherita pizza for example. It's red (sauce), white (cheese) and green (full basil leaves) to represent the flag of Italy. If it were all white and loaded down with cheese like an American pizza, it would no longer be a margherita.
There are only three true SGT pizzas - margherita, marinara and neapolitana. Nicli offers more. (The capriccioso, with baby artichokes so tender they have absolutely no chocke, is excellent.) But Mr. McCaig is dogmatic about certain things. He makes no apologies for not offering takeout or delivery. He's awfully reluctant to make substitutions. (If he's in a good mood, he may allow arugula on a Neapolitana, but he will absolutely not give customers a double deluxe.) And he will not serve a pizza sliced. So be it. This is the way my cousins taught me how to eat pizza. You take a knife and fork and make a cut through the soft centre. When you get near the crust, you tear it with your hands. Fold the raggedy slice, so the sauce doesn't drip, rip a small mouthful and savour.