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review

Arancini quattro formaggi at Nicli Antica Pizzeria in Vancouver. December 19, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Nicli Antica Pizzeria was the first certified Verace Napoletana pizza served in Vancouver. In my mind, it's still the best.

Not everyone agrees. Many complain that the room is too modern, the service too snooty. The pizza is too soggy in the middle, too skimpy on the cheese, too expensive. But the gripe I hear most? The restaurant is just too darn busy.

The lineups aren't nearly as crazy as they were three years ago. To avoid waiting for a table, I tend to go early or very late at night. Now there's another option: park your heels next door to whet your appetite on small-bite cicchetti.

Nicli's Next Door opened last summer as a holding bar for the pizzeria. (Before that, it was a short-lived deli and dry goods grocery.) And I'm sure it serves that function well. But with its focus on high-quality ingredients, attention to detail and affordability, the younger sibling has quickly matured into an extremely satisfying destination in itself.

Owner Bill McCaig has flipped the modern-rustic dichotomy in his new space. Whereas Nicli Antica is sleek and bright with pops of red leather and soaring white arches, Nicli's Next Door is laid-back and cozy with reclaimed wooden table tops and candles burning on roughly textured wood-tipped mosaic walls.

The contemporary elements are created in the open kitchen, where Chef Keev Mah (formerly of Bambudda) puts playful twists on Italian classics. Think thrice-cooked thick-cut fries wrapped in 18-month Parma prosciutto. Who needs melon when this tasty antipasti comes with cheesy veal gravy for dipping?

Arancini, typically dry deep-fried risotto balls, are turned into gooey cheese bombs, their oversized bellies filled with a melted blend of grana padano, fontina, mozzarella and provolone. Crack through the golden shell and it oozes like thick lava into a grippingly acidic pool of perfectly seasoned San Marzano tomato sauce to offset the fat.

The kitchen makes almost everything – including sauces, pasta, mustard, pickled vegetables, bread – from scratch. And the flavours are thoughtfully balanced. Deeply gamey duck rillette on crispy bruschetta, for instance, is brightened and beautified with a sour tangle of pickled red onions.

Pasta dishes are small enough for grazing, yet substantial enough to sate. Two diners could comfortably share three cicchetti and two pasta plates, which change quite frequently. Early in December, I tried a lovely pumpkin-cream agnolotti carbonara. Sprinkled with sage, pine nuts and crispy pork belly, the sweet-savoury dish came with a slow-cooked egg yolk that squirted when pierced.

Reginette, a rough-cut lasagne noodle, was firmly al dente and tossed with meltingly tender wild boar ragu.

The chef experiments with creative daily specials, which have included porchetta-stuffed cabbage rolls and deep-fried mac 'n' cheese. Come January, the restaurant will feature a weekly off-menu series.

Sometimes, however, the classics are classics for good reason. Nicli's red kuri squash cannoli wrapped in papery wafers is a pale imitation of the original dessert.

But with prices this reasonable, one less-than-stellar experiment among many small plates isn't a huge risk

Service is exemplary. Our waitress had previously worked at CinCin and Blue Water Café. Although far from snooty, she catered to us with a fine-dining attention to detail, knew the menu inside-out and steered us well through a short, yet suave, Italian list.

There is one white and red wine in each category, labelled "rustic," "lively," "elegant" and "complex." The beverage list also includes a sparkling, a rosé, three two-ounce wine flights and a handful of craft beers.

For less than $100, including a bottle of wine, tax and tip, that's amore.