Oh, Savio Volpe. Your name might mean wise fox in Italian, but you are actually quite sly. You purport to be a casual, neighbourhood Italian osteria. Ha. We know a tall tale when we hear it. Are you trying to pull the wool over our eyes?
You are a neighbourhood restaurant only by way of location, in Mount Pleasant's up-and-coming Fraserhood. A neighbourhood restaurant usually implies a place where one can slip in unannounced for a quick bite on the way home. You, on the other hand, have quickly become a destination and the hottest ticket in town. Those who don't care to eat at 5 or 9 p.m. will have to book at least two weeks in advance.
Simple osteria? Please. There is nothing simple about the design of this restaurant. The minute we stepped through the fantastical front door – about three metres tall and fit for giants – we knew that your light and sunny blonde-wood good looks were deceiving.
Falling further down the rabbit hole, the room widens into a space much larger than it appears through the front windows. There are so many clever details tucked into the corners. The herringbone-upholstered benches are a cute nod to the Little Red Riding Hood hunter motif. And the twin paintings of a Mother Teresa-like figure with glowing sconces plugged into her face is a darkly disturbing conversation piece.
We weren't surprised to discover that designer Craig Stanghetta is one of the three owners. Although we love the work that he and his design studio, Ste. Marie, did at Bao Bei, Pidgin and Homer St. Café among others, Savio Volpe is his most handsome to date.
Casual? Paul Grunberg is another of the three owners. Don't be fooled by his charming smile and skinny-jeans attire. With a pedigree that included Lumière, Chambar and Market before opening his first restaurant, L'Abattoir, Mr. Grunberg is a consummate maitre d' who demands the highest standards of service. Not a single move in the room – be it a dropped napkin or quarter-empty water glass – escapes his sharp-eyed staff. It is actually somewhat amazing that the servers appear to be so much at ease with all those stern-faced managers circling them like hawks.
The drinks menu might also seem simple, at first glance. It's mostly wine, beer and a few classic aperitifs. But there are some serious gems and geeky obscurities buried in the cellar.
As with most good fables, Savio Volpe has a warm, crackling hearth at its centre. The wood-fired grill – which burns an aromatic blend of grape vines, maple, alder and oak – is chef (and co-owner) Mark Perrier's main muse. He gilds a steady rotation of crispy-skinned half chickens on the rotisserie and grills juicy steaks over glowing coals.
Mr. Perrier, previously executive chef at CinCin and sous chef at Cibo Trattoria, certainly has Italian chops. But this food isn't really Italian. It's more West Coast Italian, inspired by Italy.
The ingredients are fresh, local and simply prepared – except when they're drenched in butter and anchovies. There is an awful lot of butter and anchovies on this menu.
There are white anchovies laid over eggs and whipped into thick, rich tuna sauce served with thinly shaved ox tongue that tastes as surprisingly rich and fatty as mortadella.
There are more anchovies emulsified with garlic in a creamy, hot butter bath for a decidedly decadent rendition of bagna cauda, served with torn bread and raw vegetables for dipping.
Even more of that rich anchovy butter is poured over a sticky side dish of broccoli. It is probably the best broccoli you will ever chew – or easily gum – in your life. But is it Italian? Well, about as Italian as the soft, white, fluffy garlic bread – also drenched in butter and served in tinfoil – inspired by the Safeway garlic bread that Mr. Grunberg ate as a child.
The pasta is all hand-made in house. And it is very well made, with nice grip and texture for the sauces to cling to. But some of those sauces are terribly heavy. A thickly stewed-out tomato ragu does not make the liveliest showcase for the first green beans of the season. Carbonara is so rich with egg yolks that the creamy sauce tightens into yellow glue.
Essentiality, a value in cooking that is deeply Italian and very trendy these days, is the idea of making fine, fresh ingredients taste like themselves. The "essence" of Mr. Perrier's fine pasta is, unfortunately, often smothered under his sauces.
His grill work has a gentler kiss. Smoked squab shines through a brown butter sauce in tender pockets of ravioli. Charred octopus is tenderly massaged in 'nduja – spicy, spreadable pork butter. A huge, hulking grass-fed veal chop is so carnivorously tempting you'll want to pick it up with both hands and chew the charred fat off the bone.
The richness of the food isn't bad, not at all. Much of it is deliriously ambrosial. But it's not exactly the classic Italian cooking – or simple restaurant – we were led to believe. Savio Volpe tricked us into his foxhole under a different guise. And it was a very pleasant fall.