I’ve been eating a lot of casual Italian fare lately. Partly by choice, because who doesn’t want to fill their belly with a big bowl of spicy bucatini all’amatriciana when the sky turns grey and the temperature dips?
But primarily out of necessity, because those are the types of restaurants that keep opening in Vancouver. And for those of us who obsess about the city’s culinary evolution, the explosion of simple Italian feels like a retreat to safer ground. Or a surrender.
It’s not an overnight trend. Last year, four of my top 10 new restaurants were Italian (five if you count Pepino’s and Caffe La Tana as separate restaurants.) It worried me then, since not one was particularly innovative. It worries me even more now that the numbers keep growing.
The most recent arrival is Farina a Legna, brought to North Vancouver’s Lower Lonsdale District by Kitchen Table Restaurants, which also owns the original Pizzeria Farina on Main Street, Pourhouse, Di Beppe and Ask For Luigi.
The new Farina inherited a wood-fired oven from the former tenant, Il Castello, so the leopard-spotted pizza crust is slightly different (thin like Neapolitan, but chewier because the temperature is kept lower, at 600 F). And it appears to be immensely popular; the first time I tried to visit, they had run out of dough by 7 p.m.
Chef Alessandro Vianello also makes a supremely rich and flavourful, heavily yolked carbonara sauce that smoothly spackles the deep grooves of its premium Rustichella d’Abruzzo rigatoni. I enjoyed that dish even more when he deconstructed the sauce into a custard-filled ravioli dusted with guanciale powder at last week’s regional qualifier for the Great Kitchen Party Canadian Culinary Championship – and won the silver medal. Pity you can’t find that version on Farina a Legna’s more approachable, cheap and cheerful menu.
Then, there is Autostrada Osteria Downtown. It opened in January, replacing its sibling restaurant, the more chef-driven Cinara, with the same core menu of no-fuss (yet always pleasing) favourites as the Main Street original. It wasn’t a dramatic switchover, co-owner Dustin Dockendorf says. The prices had gradually been going down and the menu slowly simplifying with Lucais Syme’s lauded chef’s menu served only on request. The cozy room with its well-worn wood and rickety chairs didn’t change, save for the addition of eight bar seats. The reserve wine list remains as interesting as ever. But as soon as the name changed and it was perceived to be more casual, the number of weekly guest visits doubled overnight.
Over in Mount Pleasant, at the corner of 11th and Kingsway, Sprezzatura finally opened its doors after two years of permit delays. It’s a big, beautifully designed space with soaring ceilings, weathered checker floors and industrial metal accents. And the concept is cool – London gastropub meets outdoor Italian kitchen.
Authentic Neapolitan pizza with soft, soupy centres are tossed in an open kitchen. Cold starters and antipasti are prepared at another open counter in the café side. Rather than offering pasta, a large portion of the menu is devoted to affordably priced roasts, including a succulently tender, stout-braised wagyu.
And even though you don’t usually find pasta at outdoor kitchens in Italy, the concept isn’t going over well. Which, perhaps, explains why the restaurant feels so quiet.
“People get offended,” owner Michael Parker explains. “They say, ‘How dare you call yourselves an Italian restaurant and not serve pasta.’”
Mr. Parker, who returned home to open Sprezzatura after 15 years in London, where he owned The Hill Bar & Brasserie, a celebrity-filled hot spot, is finding out the hard way: Here in Vancouver, we’re just not very adventurous.
I love Italian food. Heck, I’m half Italian. I am not throwing shade at the cuisine, in general. There is skill involved in the most common of sauces. (I still curdle my carbonara almost every time I make it.) There are intricacies to knowing what sauce goes with what pasta. The quality of ingredients can make all the difference in the world. And there is plenty of innovation in the genre, at least in Italy.
But apart from a couple of more daring restaurants (Buca in Toronto, Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill in Vancouver), that’s not happening in Canada and I don’t expect to see the next Osteria Francescana opening any time soon.
What we’re seeing, especially in Vancouver, is default comfort food or the lowest common denominator.
It’s easy to see why simple Italian food is popular. Carbs are cheap, comforting and filling. When you’re mortgage-poor or spending more than half your income on rent, pizza or pasta and a bottle of wine goes a whole lot further than a seafood splurge.
For our large Asian population, the family-style sharing aspect of service is familiar. Although I’ve yet to see a bowl of ramen or pho for $20, no matter how elevated the ingredients.
You can’t blame the restaurant owners for capitalizing on the cuisine with the highest profit margin. They’re being squeezed on all sides by soaring rents, property taxes, food prices and labour costs in a shrinking talent pool.
But great food cities are not defined by their ability to ration and make do. They are defined by diversity, creativity and innovation.