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Sagne a pezi with duck and anchovy ragu is pictured at Autostrada Osteria in Vancouver.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

  • Autostrada Osteria
  • Location: 4811 Main St., Vancouver
  • Phone: 604-428-6820
  • Website:  autostradahospitality.ca
  • Cuisine: Italian
  • Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $17; pasta, $18 to $21
  • Additional info: Open daily, 5 to 10 p.m.; no reservations
  • Rating system: Casual dining

rating

Within 10 minutes of arriving at Autostrada Osteria, we were sharing food with the couple at the next table.

“You have to try this eggplant rigatoni,” the lovely yummy mummy wearing a sequined leather jacket enthused. “It’s amazing.”

She was right. The grilled eggplants were meaty yet creamy, the pasta still tenderly springy. But it was a simple pomodoro sauce that really made the dish shine: bright red; bursting with the ripeness of good, canned San Marzano tomatoes; smoothly strained to remove any traces of seedy bitterness; thickened to light velvet; perfectly balanced with salt and finished with a drizzle of olive oil, but not sweetened with onions or bludgeoned by too much (if any) garlic; then sharpened to peppery mintiness with generous pops of freshly torn basil.

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It’s a sauce so basic, yet so frequently mangled. And this kitchen nailed it, as was immediately obvious from a single bite offered unexpectedly by complete strangers.

Autostrada’s pasta, more than ably executed by chef de cuisine Fernando Montaner, is very good.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

We returned the favour by sharing our vitello tonnato – cold slices of blushing-pink, sous-vide-poached veal shaved as thin as mortadella, neatly nested under a thick glob of tuna-egg sauce studded with capers.

“No, we couldn’t,” they demurred, as we foisted the plate in front of them.

“Yes, you must.” Their eyes rolled with pleasure.

Between shared courses, two other couples came over to greet our neighbours – whose names we never did get, even though we discovered that they have two children, live nearby, were going home far too early for a date night and have dined here several times since the restaurant opened in January.

I eat out a lot; at least three times a week. This never happens.

Autostrada Osteria is located off the beaten track and primarily frequented by famished locals, not tourists.

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On a previous visit, I dined at the six-seat bar, playing wingman for a buddy, then excused myself from the blossoming flirtation to join three gal pals that I hadn’t seen in ages. It seemed as though everyone was moving around and mingling. Even the bartender, co-owner Dustin Dockendorf, took a break to sit down with friends. Earlier in the evening, the other co-owner, chef Lucais Syme, was there noshing with his family.

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“I feel like I’m in New York,” said Global National’s Robin Gill, one of the gal pals I bumped into. “That trendy part of the Lower East Side where the food and vibe are unpretentious.”

The difference, however, is that Autostrada Osteria is located at 33rd and Main Street, in Riley Park, a leafy residential neighbourhood where young, middle-class families flocked when they could still afford detached homes. It’s now an extremely desirable postal code with lots of cute cafés moving in. But there still aren’t many decent restaurants across this entire southern band of the city, from here all the way west to UBC.

Perhaps that’s why Autostrada feels so neighbourly. It’s off the beaten track and primarily frequented by famished locals, not tourists.

Or maybe it’s the small industrial space, with its high ceiling, clean white décor and tightly squeezed tables where you are practically rubbing elbows with strangers, just as you would at a communal table in a true Italian osteria.

Jennifer Salt, general manager at Autostrada Osteria, pours a glass of Vaporetto Prosecco.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

It could be the music, a sing-a-long mix of eighties hits and Motown classics played at a comfortably loud volume, which seems to resonate with the largely middle-age clientele.

Or the genuinely hospitable service that never misses a beat – with the exception of social media, which could have used an update (or even a handwritten note on the door) the day the restaurant closed unexpectedly.

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Value-priced beverages certainly help lubricate the mood. Wines are broadly categorized by region and style (“classic Tuscan,” “rich, sultry Venetian”) for easy rotation. The “clean house white” (currently Mirella Vedicchio) is extremely juicy and drinkable at only $9 a glass. Cocktails are limited to a handful of Italian standards, a short digestivo selection is well edited.

The food is also neatly curated – nine starters, seven pastas and just enough deviation from the usual suspects to keep things interesting – so nobody has to think too hard.

Creamy duck liver on toast has a bold hit of gaminess.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Whatever the combination of factors, Autostrada has nailed a winning neighbourhood-restaurant formula that’s as tight as its tomato sauce.

This wasn’t a given. Mr. Syme might be a talented Vancouver chef who made a big name for himself at La Quercia. But he floundered at La Pentola in the Opus Hotel. And it took a long time for Cinara to find its audience. Remember how he and partner Gillian Bok shunned pasta in the beginning? Methinks Mr. Dockendorf, the former manager of concept development for Joey Restaurants and now an equal partner in Cinara, is the main driver of this compact model, which they plan on rolling out to more locations.

Autostrada’s pasta, more than ably executed by chef de cuisine Fernando Montaner, is very good. Only the daily tortellini, shaped into tightly packed paper hats, is freshly made by hand. The rest is quality pasta secca, which makes perfect sense for a small operation where everything is pre-portioned and cooked in a gas-less open kitchen smaller than most food trucks.

Sauces are designed to comfort, not reinvent any wheels. Bolognese is rich and creamy. The anchovy in a crumbled-duck ragu is just a glimmer of dark-umami small bait gliding through a glossy ocean of buttery stock reduction. Cacio e pepe, tingly with coarse cracks of single-origin peppercorns from India, is a Rubenesque béchamel thickly plumped with pecorino.

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The lemon tart at Autostrada Osteria is a home run.

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The starters are slightly more adventurous and no less pleasing. Creamy duck liver on toast has a bold hit of gaminess, while the anchovy version is beautifully balanced and fleshed out with herb butter softening the grilled focaccia, pickled cucumbers and crunchy radish for texture, and a huge heap of fresh parsley over which the mild boquerones are draped.

The only dish that fell short was an overly sweet risotto, which needed a sharper contrast to its darkly caramelized onion soubise.

And if you agree with the late Paul Bocuse that one can always judge a restaurant by the quality of its lemon tart, this one is a home run. Dark with lemon zest and dense with egg yolk, the filling is snugly baked into a fudgy crust with a golden crackle of sugar caramelized over top.

You should have seen the smiles on our new friends at the next table after I strongly suggested they order it. I almost leaned over and swiped another bite.

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