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review

A great feature of the smashed meatball flatbread is that the meatballs are softly braised, instead of grilled.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

To wannabe wise guys, Paulie's Kitchen would probably rate as a classy joint. For anyone who celebrated an eighties-era birthday at Mother's Pizza Parlour and Spaghetti House, the stuffed mushroom caps and fettuccine Alfredo could prove a thoroughly enjoyable nostalgic experience.

But what does this second-generation goombah think? Meh, it's a mediocre, Italian-American, red-sauce restaurant. And for all its seeming simplicity – the most adventurous menu item is veal saltimbocca – the place is actually quite confusing.

Is it a distillery, a bar or a restaurant? Is it called The Distillery Bar + Kitchen or Paulie's Kitchen? (The website and signage are not the least bit clear.) Who would have guessed it was even Italian? The first time I went, for drinks on the patio last summer, I sat on rattan chairs at marble tables and could have sworn I was in a Parisian bistro.

Owned by the Mark James Group (Yaletown Brewhouse, Flying Beaver, Big Ridge Brewing Co., etc.), this sprawling Yaletown complex is a little bit of everything meant to please the masses.

On the Hamilton Street side, there is a storefront distillery and tasting bar, where one can sample $2 shots of craft vodka and gin made with 100-per-cent B.C. ingredients. The vodka is a bit harsh on the throat, but the floral gin goes down nice and easy.

Around the corner, on Mainland Street, the front entrance leads to the Distillery Bar. It's a fetching room with tiled floors, grand chandeliers, stuffed leather sofas, exposed brick and thick posts and beams. During the day, the space looks French. But after the sun sets, a DJ in the corner starts spinning Frank Sinatra and The Godfather: Part III rolls off the jumbo TV screens for la-dolce-vita-lite effect.

You could eat on this side at low-slung coffee tables. But it's more loud, crowded bar than restaurant, designed to showcase the house-made spirits crafted into exceptional cocktails "inspired" by Shaun Layton. Mr. Layton of Gastown's L'Abattoir is one of the best bartenders in Vancouver. I'm not sure what "inspired" means. I presume he consulted on the recipes for a superior gin-and-tonic (served with a small Fentiman's bottle that you can pour to your liking) and the foamy egg white, ginger-spiked and cucumber-rounded Screaming Viking.

I imagine that Mr. Layton offered extensive training to the bartending staff because the cocktail execution is excellent, as opposed to the floor service, which is laughably lame.

"Can I take your order?" our waitress asked about two minutes after we sat down. Uh, no. We hadn't even looked at the menu. Three minutes later, Ms. Eager Beaver was back again. And so it went on and on.

She was obviously in training and we were the only table in her section. But I simply can't understand why the manager would later come to our table to demonstrate how to open a wine bottle, yet leave her flailing in every other aspect. I don't blame her for being overeager at the beginning and then forgetting to clear our appetizer plates as we dug into our mains. It's his fault. A good manager would never let a novice embarrass his establishment this way.

Dinner? Well, if you feel the need to fend off vampires, the Distillery Caesar will keep you covered. The salad was light on anchovies, but the Romaine was crisp and the Parmesan was plentiful.

We ordered a smashed meatball flatbread and I really appreciated that the meatballs were softly braised, not grilled. This is the way my mother cooks them, but every region has a different recipe. The flatbread (which differs from a pizza because the crusts aren't raised) was perfectly thin and leopard-spotted underneath.

The tomato sauce, on flatbread and other main dishes, was a nice balance of acidic and sweet. It certainly wouldn't offend any serious gastro Italian. And the veal Parmigianino, well, it had bubbly, crisp crust like something Mama might make.

But the peas on the penne vodka were obviously frozen. And the fried pastry wrappers on the cannoli were greasy.

If you need to please a large group without offending the Italian purists, the Distillery Bar + Paulie's Kitchen will work in a pinch. If you're trying to impress a first date? Fuggedaboudit!