La Ghianda (acorn in Italian) didn't fall far from La Quercia (oak tree). The new Tyrolean café and deli sprouted right around the corner from its small yet mighty Point Grey progenitor, which Vancouver Magazine named best new restaurant in 2008.
In a refreshing change from North American tradition, both establishments focus on the northern Italian regions of Trentino Alto Adige and Piedmont, where co-owner Adam Pegg trained after completing the Italcook Slow Food's Master of Italian Cooking program.
In a homage to its alpine roots, the open kitchen is framed with a shingled timber roof that looks like a ski hut. Small picnic tables out front are hewn from rough wood.
Behind the deli counter, you'll find vacuum-sealed packages of sauerkraut, pickled beets, braised beef cheeks and lamb ragout ready to take home. They also sell olive oil, coffee, a small selection of cured meat, cheese and excellent house-baked ciabatta loaves with a perfect chewy crust and soft, porous interior.
It's a busy little space, especially in the early afternoon when a café menu draws an eclectic neighbourhood crowd of young families, retirees, ladies who lunch, students and restaurant workers. The main menu items cost $10 each, with side salads and soups available for $6.
I had a fabulous vitello tonnato panini, padded with a generous pink portion of cold, thin-sliced veal, creamy tuna sauce and a scattering of capers. Gorgonzola gnocchi with fresh-shelled walnuts was a bit tame. The plump hand-made potato dumplings could have handled more blue-cheese pungency in the sauce.
But the scallopine al limone - so tender and tasty in its glossy butter-caper sauce - as flawless. Accompanied by beets, grilled zucchini and roasted eggplant, it was also very good value.
The daily dinners, served piping hot, are available only from 5 to 6 p.m. The dishes range from lasagne Bolognese to roast leg of lamb. The night I visited, it was a large roast chicken leg for $16, which included a small ciabatta twist, grilled zucchini and a fabulous bean salad with freshly cooked chickpeas and a spicy bite. The zucchini could have used an extra drizzle of olive oil (as it was presented at lunch) and the succulent chicken a bit more rosemary jus. But all in all, it was a nice simple meal, very well done.
I also took home a package of puttanesca pasta sauce, which hails from a different region altogether, but is wonderfully chunky with olives, salty with anchovies, fiery with chilies and highly recommended. The half-kilogram portion for $15 was enough to feed four.
Save room for dessert. Chocolate bunet, a Piedmontese specialty, is custard made with cocoa and amaretti cookies. Try to imagine crème caramel crossed with bread pudding. It's slippery on the tongue, slightly crunchy and absolutely delicious.