The pizza maker at The BiBo is a sheer delight to watch. Salvatore Miele is a dark and handsome heavenly creature recruited from Naples. Years of kneading and rolling strong pizza dough by hand has earned him massive deltoid muscles that pop like wings when he leans his paddle into the wood-fired oven at the back of the restaurant.
Alas, how many people have missed the opportunity to see this young angel at work or taste his divine thin-crust pizza? How many potential customers have simply walked away after waiting 15 minutes by the front door without so much as a nod of acknowledgement?
I know of six friends who have done just that. And the first time I visited this new Kitsilano pizzeria, I saw even more discontented diners shake their heads and mumble disparagingly about the "amateur" service.
That first visit got worse before it got better. We waited another 30 minutes in the lounge area, which was fine since we didn't have a reservation. In the meantime, someone could have cleared the dirty dishes piled in front of us. And since the server was pressuring us to order our food before being sat, it would have been nice if she had also offered us drinks. We practically had to beg for wine.
The night did eventually get better, especially when the pizzas arrived in all their blistered, chewy, cheesy glory. And when I went back last week, service had improved considerably. (Our party was greeted immediately and warmly.) Owners Lorenzo Bottazzi and Andrea Bini, childhood friends who come from a small village between Genoa and Milan, are new to the restaurant business. Their lack of experience is clearly evident, from the restaurant's partially addressed problems with staffing (they could still use a hostess during peak hours) to its awkward layout. Even in the most casual pizza joint, nobody wants to sit in a room so tightly packed that everyone has to lean in when the servers try to squeeze by. This is the "VIP" table we were promised when the manager called back to negotiate a later reservation?
But their passion is equally palpable. Sure, some may mistake their enthusiasm for arrogance. Especially when the menu and press materials boast of Mr. Bottazzi's "aristocratic heritage" (his grandfather is a count) and how the owners plan to "educate" diners by "bringing the real Italy to Vancouver for the first time."
I think their main message - an uncompromising commitment to using the highest quality ingredients and preparing their food with strict standards of authenticity - has been lost in translation. Because when Mr. Bini comes by the table to extol the virtues of the DOP mozzarella di bufala campana used on the Formula One pizza, an upgraded margherita, his excitement is infectious. This is a man who loves great food and is proud to be serving what he considers the very best cheese known to man.
And yes, DOP buffalo mozzarella, made from the milk of domesticated water buffalo in the Campania region around Naples really is that much more soft and buttery, musky and richer tasting than its less expensive counterpart made from cow's milk. (DOP stands for Protected Designation of Origin, a certificate of authenticity recognized by the European Union.) It's also worth remembering that until Nicli Antica opened in December, Vancouver didn't have any authentic Neapolitan pizzerias. So they are offering something special.
Is the pizza here as good as it is at Nicli? Yes. It's similar, but different. The crust is thin, with bubbled, crispy edges and a wet centre, as it's meant to be, but it has a bit more chew. Although Mr. Miele won't give away his secrets, I think he uses a blend of flours, not just the very fine "OO" flour, which would give it a more airy consistency. His tomato sauce is brightly acidic.
I preferred the Formula One over the margherita partly because the buffalo mozzarella was so delicious, but also because there was less of it. The latter was weighed down with so much cheese you couldn't even see the sauce underneath.
But the pancetta and gorgonzola pizza was excellent, very pungent and salty. So was the calzone, a folded pocket stuffed with Parma ham and mushrooms. After baking, Mr. Miele ladles tomato sauce over top and gives it another quick blast in the oven so the sauce bakes right into the dough.
And the pastas - fluffy gnocchi with pesto sauce made from fresh basil imported from Liguria, a vibrant rigatoni alla norma dusted with salted ricotta and the signature pasta matteo with silky pasta sheets and creamy porcini - are all celestial.
Vancouver has been blessed with an explosion of excellent Italian restaurants in the last few years. The BiBo is another to add to the list - though you may want to wait a while before going, until the crowds disperse and they work out the kinks.