I've heard of hockey players going into the restaurant business, but news jockeys?
When Tony Parsons ─ the award-winning, top-rated supper-TV news anchor in Canada ─ announced in December that he was leaving Global British Columbia after 35 years of service, he conducted the interview from his new venture, Poor Italian Trattoria Ristorante.
Perhaps he should have kept his day job.
Mr. Parsons is a financial investor, not a managing partner. Thus, he's probably not to blame for the restaurant's dated décor, misleading menu descriptions and mostly disappointing food.
Yet the venerable broadcaster's presence is definitely felt from the moment you walk in the door. There's his authoritative headshot, staring right at you from the dust jacket of his recently published memoir, A Life in the News, which is prominently propped on the hostess stand.
As one of the most recognizable, trusted names in the province, his involvement helps explain why this out-of-the way establishment, located in an East Vancouver strip mall previously occupied by Choppers Diner, has been packed since it opened before Christmas. (It took me nearly a month to secure a reservation.)
That said, Mr. Parsons can't take full credit for Poor Italian's popularity either. His day-to-day business partner is Gianni Picchi. And in some dining circles, the Umbrian chef who spent 10 years at Il Giardino before opening his own restaurant, Gianni, in 1996, is as much a local legend. (Why? I'm still wondering myself.)
Those who have been following Mr. Picchi since the mid-eighties will probably feel a comfortable sense of nostalgia here. Poor Italian, in many ways true to its name, is a low-budget version of Il Giardino, with its Tuscan yellow walls, faux-marble motifs, stencil-drawn trimmings and heavy wooden farmhouse furniture.
Look at the flair bartender spinning glasses behind the wood! I haven't seen that sort of showmanship since Tom Cruise dazzled moviegoers in Cocktail, circa 1988.
The menu is a similarly themed collection of old-school greatest hits, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. You can't knock the classics, if they're prepared with love and great ingredients.
Unfortunately, that's not the case at Poor Italian. Most of the dishes we try taste like they may have impressed back in the day - before the mangia cakes knew any better.
Having recently worked as a waitress for a week, I know that I am being a very bad customer. I hem and haw as our server hovers, asking endless questions about almost every item on the menu.
The young waiter is well within his rights to say (with a laugh), "Hey, lady. I've got other tables waiting." Though I still maintain that it's well within a restaurant critic's purview to test a server's food knowledge (if done with a smile) and expect a correct answer.
For instance, I only order Spaghetti Alla Norcini ($19) because it's allegedly tossed with "freshly shaved" black truffles. At this price, I'm slightly skeptical about the freshness of the truffles, though it could well be a very small portion.
The pasta we receive is a mix of spaghetti and linguine (different weights and shapes take different cooking times, which probably explains why the noodles are clumped together in sticky wads). The portion is plentiful, yet relatively tasteless, especially given the copious chunks of oily, pureed truffle in which the dish drowns. If these are fresh truffles (not the inferior, jarred variety), I'll eat a wild boar's snout for breakfast.
Cotoletta di Vitello Milanese ($28) is a breaded "milk-fed" veal chop that is promised to be so tender it will melt in our mouths. The meat is a creamy pink colour, indicating that it probably does come from a milk-fed calf (though the texture certainly isn't velvety enough to be of the highest quality).
The bone-in chop is unusually thick, about 1½ inches, and edged with an inedible layer of chewy gristle and fat that should have been trimmed. The breadcrumb batter is chunky and greasy.
The vegetables only add insult to injury. The chop is laid over a starchy mound of lumpy turnip and mushy pickled purple sauerkraut. Roast potatoes are cold and hard; baked wedges of (whitish) tomato and (bland) golden beet are so overcooked they look mashed.
Calamari with spicy sausage ($12) is tough on the teeth and not very piquant. The tomatoes they're sautéed in tastes like a cheap, canned brand fortified with sugar and citric acid.
While the waiter is kind enough to bring us a complimentary half-portion of the daily pasta special, I'm certainly glad I didn't pay for a full portion of this gummy gnocchi in a ragu sauce beefed up with veal, steak and more chewy gristle.
We do enjoy the oyster soup ($8.50). The oysters are generous and gently plumped - though it's hard not to be seduced by this much butter and cream. And millefoglie ($7) for dessert is layered with a very nice lemon mascarpone, even if the deep-fried phyllo pastry is a bit greasy.
All in all, the best thing I can say about Poor Italian is that they certainly got the name right.
Poor Italian Trattoria Ristorante: 3296 East 1st Ave.; 604-251-1122.