Location: 1115 Alberni St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Friulian and other northeastern Italian
Prices: Dinner, appetizers and pasta, $23 to $34; mains, $30 to $46
Additional information: Open daily, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., reservations recommended, no patio, takeout available.
Carlino is the new upscale restaurant in Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel, specializing in Friulian cuisine from northeastern Italy. It replaces the short-lived Miantiao, which valiantly tried to fuse Italian and Chinese traditions, but failed to impress the masses.
What’s ironic is that Carlino’s excellent potato gnocchi with lamb Friulano could easily pass as a Chinese-Italian dish.
The tender gnocchi, filled with puréed potato and ricotta, are clearly Italian and carefully finger-pressed with fork-tine grooves. But they’re almost as big as Uyghur-style manta, a wheat-flour dumpling (usually stuffed with lamb), which migrated to China’s northwest Xinjiang province from Turkey along the ancient Silk Road.
The pickled banana pepper and sliced cornichon garnish bears a close resemblance to the hot-and-sour flavours of Hunan cuisine.
And the braised lamb sauce, marinaded in cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper, would be quite comfortably at home in any Shaanxi restaurant, where many lamb-based dishes are prepared with a similar mix of warm aromatics. Shaanxi’s capital city, Xi’an (formerly Chang’an), was the easternmost stop along the Silk Road; the westernmost stop was Venice in the Veneto region of Italy, which borders Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
This gnocchi dish is authentically Friulian. The recipe was handed down to restaurant co-owner Nick Rossi from his paternal grandfather, Carlino, who spoke the Friuli dialect, never left his hometown and after whom the restaurant is named.
But it’s a great example of the complex foodways that connect cultures around the world. And it also shows the incredible diversity to be found in regional Italian cuisine.
There are countless similarities between Chinese and Italian food and Miantiao was a great concept. It did not work for a number of reasons, including a young chef who was the wrong fit. And even though I had a terrible dinner there last summer, I was sorry to see it go.
Carlino, which also embraces classic dishes from Friuli’s neighbouring regions of Trentino and Veneto in northern Italy, might be challenging for diners who have come to expect the same-old spaghetti carbonara and Neapolitan pizza at every Italian restaurant.
But it’s also a great concept for Vancouver, where regional Italian restaurants are few and far between.
And in the extremely capable hands of executive chef Mark Perrier, who treats these lesser-known specialities with much more respect than he did Canadian-Italian cuisine at Pepino’s Spaghetti House, there are so many interesting dishes to explore.
The musetto e brovade, for example, is a pig-head sausage on fermented turnips that tastes far better than it sounds or looks. Mr. Perrier breaks down the head in house, shapes the silky meat (poached in more warm aromatics) into a patty and fries it to a caramelized crisp. The turnips, which are lacto-fermented for three months in red-wine grape must from the Okanagan’s LaStella Winery, have a wondrously bright tang that cuts through all the porky richness. It’s a must-try dish.
Mr. Perrier applies more thoughtful cheffy touches to the roast guinea breast, an incredibly rich, full-flavoured bird from Quebec that makes such a nice change from chicken. In Friuli, this dish would usually be served as a whole bird, stuffed with mascarpone and prosciutto. Here, to make it more accessible as an individual portion, the breast is served over a thick slice of bread slathered with mascarpone, all doused with glossy pan juices. (At lunch, the legs are served with pasta.)
Cjarsons is another alluring specialty. There are probably as many versions of this stuffed pasta (similar to ravioli) as there are households in Friuli. I was expecting it to be thick and doughy, but Mr. Perrier’s pasta is thin and silky. It’s currently being stuffed with wild greens in a lemony butter sauce, sprinkled with crumbly chunks of house-smoked ricotta. But I imagine that will change with the seasons.
The francobolli pasta, cut into small squares the size of postage stamps, was filled with veal osso bucco and served with a rich marrow sauce. Unfortunately, the pasta was a little overcooked or left for too long under the pass, so it turned into mush. And the breadcrumb gremolata, rather than adding crunchy texture, had gone gummy.
In a nod to Vancouver tastes and hotel-restaurant realities, there are a few more generic dishes. The grain and bean salad, deeply textured with fava beans and hazelnuts, punchy with salty ricotta and finished with a beautifully robust Sicilian olive oil, is a definite winner.
The Holstein dairy cow tagliata steak, which comes from the same farm in Wisconsin that Vancouver’s Elisa restaurant uses, is an excellent piece of meat, fattened up on corn to the luscious standards of USDA Prime. But it was finished a bit heavily with eye-squinting lashes of aged balsamic vinegar.
Other dishes, like the roasted polenta with anchovy butter or the tuna-light aioli on the pork-leg tonnato, lean to the cautious side of seasoning. But when I think back to the extremely funky, fatty beef lip on the Miantiao chef’s menu that almost made me sick, I imagine they’re erring on the safe side for good reason.
David Steele’s all-Italian wine list is deep and fun to dig around. Bartender Luigi Bosco mixes some very intriguing cocktails, including the Soprattutto, a bourbon sour with mint amaro. Service is smooth, even from the less-experienced servers, who can answer most questions, but wisely defer to the kitchen or the sommelier when they can’t.
The breakfast menu, which I did not try, is overseen by Ilaria Alba, the hotel chef who is also responsible for in-room dining and banquets. The division of labour in hotel restaurants can often be tricky, but this team seems to have it all sorted out.
Carlino does have a few issues to resolve. The main dining room, which may or may not be holding for a concept within a concept, still hasn’t opened up.
And the “Fai Tu” or chef’s choice menu, or family-style sharing at $85 a person, doesn’t really offer any special value or dishes outside the regular menu. The way it works now, I’d rather just choose for myself.
But Carlino does offer many delicious, well-executed dishes from a lesser-known region of Italy. It’s definitely worth trying. And I hope it stays the course.
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