Vancouver is going through a casual Italian phase. Almost every month, it seems, there is a new neighourhood restaurant popping up. Everyone loves Italian. It’s a comforting crowd-pleaser with enough regional variety to keep things interesting.
Not every Italian restaurant, however, makes its own fresh pasta – nor should it have to. Dry artisanal pasta can be just as satisfying, better suited for certain sauces and much easier for small kitchens.
For those that do roll their own dough to create noodles that are more tender, silky and rich with egg, it’s a meticulous labour of love that is dependent on constantly changing variables (flour type and freshness, egg protein and even prevailing climate conditions such as humidity and precipitation).
Here are three new or newish local restaurants that go that extra mile, each with its own distinctive identity and appeal.
Orto Artisan Pasta
- 1600 Mackay Rd., North Vancouver
- Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. (10 a.m. on Saturday) to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
On an unassuming side street behind North Vancouver’s Capilano Mall, there is a stout yellow building with a fenced-in asphalt parking lot that has exploded into an urban oasis of flowers, vegetables and carnival-coloured bliss.
There are pink rose bushes growing wild against periwinkle picnic tables with red umbrellas slanted overtop and sleeping dogs underneath. There are pots of lavender lining the fences and stringed lights twinkling above. There are trellises dripping grape vines, baskets of petunias hanging over long rows of herbs and clusters of marigolds bursting from the sides of wooden containers overflowing with zucchini, kale, beans and peas.
You could quite easily get lost in this magical garden, what with all the leafy nooks and secluded corners, but I don’t think you could ever be sad there.
Brigitte Raye has never looked happier. She practically glows as she glides from table to table, pouring prosecco and joking with customers. Between her, her ex-husband (Alain) and two sons (Kevin and Steeve), the Rayes have owned or operated at least five local French restaurants since 2002, most famously La Régalade in West Vancouver. She owns Orto with Steeve and they share the space with Bad Dog Breads. But it was her new husband, Mauro, who inspired the casual Italian theme – and probably has a lot to do with her glow.
“I didn’t make the same mistake,” she later laughs over the phone. “I updated my husband, but I don’t work with this one.”
When Orto opened a year ago, the kitchen was using Bad Dog’s fresh-milled flour for its handmade pasta, but soon got too busy. They now use a combination of Canadian all-purpose and Italian “00” flour. The latter is a finely milled, high-protein flour with a powdery texture that yields exceptionally silky pasta. The light garden-fresh sauces, all cooked to order and often loosely fortified with starchy pasta water, don’t cling so much as they slip and slide around the smooth noodles, which come in all shapes and sizes thanks a good extruding machine. Casarecce, which look like little scrolls, are rolled impressively tight.
As bountiful as the garden might appear, it is not large enough to supply every dish. Early heirloom tomatoes, wild spinach, cauliflower and lettuces are sourced from local farms – North Arm, Hannah Brook and the Vancouver Farmers Market Association.
Start with an excellent Bad Dog Bread platter and golden-crisped zucchini fritters, which are plucked fresh from the planters beside you. Unwind into pasta – perhaps bouncy spaghetti with garden-fresh basil or taglioni with almond pesto. It actually doesn’t really matter what you order. Everything tastes good when you’re dining in this garden, which feels like another world right on the edge of the city.
- 1220 Bute St., Vancouver
- Open Tuesday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Amici Miei, a West End hole-in-wall, is one of my favourite places for fresh pasta. The casual mom-and-pop shop is owned by Marcella Gentile and Manrico Serpente, from Abruzzo, and they are fanatical about only using Italian ingredients and being as true to tradition as possible.
Now their son, Manrico Serpente Jr., has opened his own restaurant and it’s almost as good. The Italians is a much more social destination, with an open kitchen, tiny patio, cozy seating, exceptionally friendly service and convivial bar.
After working for years by his father’s side, Mr. Serpente Jr. makes excellent pasta with chewy elasticity and a deep-yellow hue. The textured surface on his thick spaghetti is the perfect vessel for holding up hearty sauces. Do try the carbonara with its rich egg cream, meaty guanciale and briny lashes of pecorino. It leaves most other carbonaras in the dust.
He falters only when he tries to innovate. His “modern” lasagna was a disaster with its crumbly, dry beef and sticky wads of cold mozzarella.
Stick to tradition, young man. You’ve bet your restaurant’s name on it.
Fiore Pizza and Pasta
- 1485 West 12th Ave., Vancouver
- Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (limited bar menu from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
Fiore Pizza and Pasta is the anti-traditionalist Italian restaurant. Owned by the same group that is slowly taking over the South Granville restaurant scene (it also runs the Stable House wine bar on West 13th and is just about to open Fiore Famiglia on West 12th), it offers creative handcrafted pasta made with fresh-milled local flours, seasonal ingredients and the most unusual, delightful, naturally leavened sourdough pizza.
Chef Alexandrea Fladhamer first started making pasta at Ask for Luigi, but earned her earthy, hippie, locavore stripes by working at Burdock and Co. and the Noods natural-wine pop-ups. She’ll take fresh-milled flour from local purveyor GRAIN over the imported stuff any day.
“I don’t know how much I actually trust Italians,” she jokes.
She uses different ratios for various noodles, hand-rolled each morning and often incorporates fried herbs, spices and vegetables right into the dough. Her pillow-soft gnocchi is filled with nutmeg, given a crunchy golden sear and tossed with a rich chestnut brown butter brightened with charred lemon.
Pappardelle, made with red-spring wheat flour and oodles of egg, is rustic, wide, puffy and rolled out so long you practically need to eat it with a fork and knife. A noodle this voluptuous requires a big, hearty sauce. Ms. Fladhamer’s creamy Bolognese buzzing with chili is a perfect pairing. Don’t miss the sourdough pizza, which is chewy, wholesome and extremely tangy.
Matthew Landry, an award-winning sommelier, curates a terrific Italian wine list bursting with well-priced gems. The room is modern and lively. Just be careful to avoid the pretheatre dinner hour.