Edmonton's Vaticano Cucina has taken over a space formerly occupied by a Greek eatery.
The change is drastic – the low ceilings, dim lighting and fake grape vines of the building's former occupants have been stripped away and replaced with bright white walls, an open kitchen and a replica of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. Background music is pleasant enough; at one point, a jazzed-up instrumental version of Madonna's Material Girl saunters through the room. Tables are filled and the evening has barely begun, perhaps because independent restaurants are few and far between in this major traffic corridor.
Only a pair of flat-screen TVs spewing colourful images of the Italian countryside seems out of step with the room's crisp vibe.
Vaticano's menu covers a fair bit of ground, from antipasti and salads to pasta and pizza. There are no real risks here, and the religious theme is a bit heavy-handed at times. All pizzas are named after saints, and cocktails take a similarly punny approach. The likes of "Sin & Tonic" or "Mary Magdalene's Mojito" (each $7) are decent enough, but the wine list, which covers territory from Canada to Italy, fares better.
Appetizers tread familiar territory and, for the most part, succeed in executing Italian standards. Arancini ($14) are downright huge. They're at least the size of an overinflated tennis ball, with tender porchetta encased inside a mantle of rice and a golden crust.
Radicchio bundles ($11), although morphologically similar to cabbage rolls, are stuffed with tender mozzarella. While bitter radicchio and sweet mozza pair well together, the addition of a raspberry vinaigrette is perplexing.
Polenta bruschetta ($12) swaps out bread for fried polenta triangles. The polenta is delicious; pity that a thick smear of pesto underneath distracts from the toppings of diced tomato, onion and basil.
Vaticano's strength proves to be pizza. Edmonton's pizza scene is far beyond the greasy pies of yore, and Vaticano's are strong contenders. The crusts are thin and foldable, with just the right amount of charring on the edges.
The St. Theresa ($17) forgoes tomato sauce in favour of fontina and prosciutto. Slices of pancetta and a sprinkle of arugula are added after a quick foray into Vaticano's lion-faced oven. An anchovy-lemon drizzle is positively scrumptious.
St. Benedict ($16) is Vaticano's version of the traditional "four seasons" pizza, which sees ingredients that represent each season occupying quarters of the pie. Here, the "seasons" are prosciutto cotto, artichokes, mushrooms and olives.
Pity that one must enjoy the seasons independently of one another.
Pastas are less successful. Although the meat sauce of the bolognese ($16) has depth, it is besmirched by what appears to be pre-ground parmesan.
Garganelle ($16) fares better. Although pesto is the predominant flavour, broccolini and cherry tomatoes even things out.
Desserts break no new ground. Tiramisu ($8) tastes neither of espresso nor liqueur. Pistachio panna cotta ($8) is not panna cotta in the traditional sense; rather, this version is harshly tangy and is inexplicably served in a wine glass.
While there are a few stand-outs on the menu, one is unlikely to be born again at Vaticano.