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Amici Miei in the West End is genius in its simplicity

Marcella Gentile and Manrico Serpente, owners of Amici Miei serve up a fairly good rendition of Neapolitan pizza.

DARRYL DYCK for the globe and mail

3 out of 4 stars

Name
Amici Miei
Location
1114 Denman St., Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-563-6610
Cuisine
Italian casual dining
Additional Info
Open Tues. to Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations available.

This was supposed to be a review of three new Italian restaurants in Vancouver's West End, a neighbourhood well known for its dominance of casual Japanese and Korean eateries.

But after discovering Amici Miei, a small mom-and-pop dining room making extraordinary pasta, the others fell by the wayside and the review became a Ratatouille-like love story, starring me as Anton Ego.

Let's get the first two out of the way, rapidemente. (Because the film's animated restaurant critic would never pass up the opportunity to skewer a bad meal.)

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You might want to try Grotto (1725 Davie St., grottoitalian.ca), especially if you're in the mood for late-night snacks and drinks. The kitchen is open until 1:30 a.m. most days. And Fiona Grieve, who also owns Buckstop on Denman Street, makes excellent cocktails.

See the food and the restaurant at Amici Miei

Grotto's wine list is surprisingly deep and filled with well-priced gems. The subterranean room is intentionally dark and dingy, but I don't think the bathroom is meant to be quite so dirty. The food? Obnoxiously oversalted and largely forgettable. Except for the pizzas, which are assembled on untraditional – yet tasty – thin and brittle cracker-style crusts.

You can definitely skip Verifood, a casual café and take-out pasta shop (1795 Robson St., verifood.net). The owners are Italian, newly arrived from Florence. But just because people are Italian doesn't necessarily mean they are good cooks.

The day I visited, Verifood's lasagna was oddly thin and flat (it almost seemed pressed), built on three measly, yet thickly bloated sheets of dough. While being reheated, the edges became burnt – as was the acrid eggplant Parmigiana and the blackened pancetta in the carbonara sauce. The front counter was a disorganized mess, the open kitchen was chaotic (the server squealed when she almost slid through a puddle) and the tiny upper seating area was insufferably steamy.

But really, why bother with either when you could be eating exquisitely fresh, handmade pasta and authentic thin-crust pizza in Amici Miei's cozy little family run dining room?

Owners Marcella Gentile and Manrico Serpente (the chef) are from Abruzzo, near the Adriatic coast in central Italy, where they owned two restaurants in the city of Teramo. After losing almost everything in the economic downtown, they moved to Vancouver, where Ms. Gentile lived in the 1970s, to join her brother and their eldest son.

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The 26-seat room is a humble affair, with tables squished up right next to each other and clichéd photographs of Italian scenery hung on the walls. The service, while warm and friendly, can be stretched thin when the restaurant is busy. And because everything is prepared fresh – even the pasta is cut to order – the food comes out very slowly.

Don't be impatient because it all tastes divine. Now here comes Anton Ego …

The pillowy soft potato gnocchi reminds me of my childhood. Not my Italian mother's cooking – she was a hard-working career woman and a horrible chef in those days. But of gnocchi Sundays at Zia Concetta's, when the entire family would sit around the kitchen table hand rolling little dough balls on ridged wooden boards.

The spaghetti pomodorino transports me back to Italy, to an outdoor café in a cobbled courtyard. The dish is so simple – just cherry tomatoes, softly sautéed in peppery olive oil with a touch of garlic until they burst, lightly scented with torn basil and sprinkled with shavings of salted ricotta. But the simplicity is its genius – along with the purity of the pasta, hued deeply yellow (because it's made only with semolina and good farm-fresh, orange-yolk eggs), cooked perfectly al dente and swirled into a thick, pony-tail-like bun on the plate. I sighed aloud while devouring this spaghetti chitarra (a generous 135-gram serving, cut into square strings) and swore I could almost smell Italy's dusty hills and azure-blue seas spilling out from an archive of fond memories.

The chitarra spaghetti is a speciality of Abruzzo. The restaurant offered more regional dishes when it opened. But the customers didn't appreciate them, which is a shame. I hope the owners bring back the scrippelle 'mbusse (an Italian crepe rolled with pecorino and served in chicken broth). If you go, do me a favour and give them an encouraging nudge.

Ms. Gentile's sister-in-law, who is also an owner, is from the Amalfi coast. So, there are some Mediterranean influences on the menu. The pizza, although not cooked in a burning-wood stove, is a good rendition of Neapolitan pizza with a thin crust, yeasty dough and grippingly acidic tomato sauce.

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Mr. Serpente has a masterful light touch with seafood. As a special one night, he made paccheri (a large tube pasta) in a tomato sauce that was chock full of firm, squeaky shrimp and barely opened clams and mussels.

He also makes a glossy Sicilian-inspired cream sauce with Italian pancetta, zucchini and crushed pistachios. Some people might it find it too rich and sweet for their tastes, or maybe just too different.

But to me, the difference is the joy of this wonderful little restaurant, which is currently being assessed for the Ospitalita Italiana certification of authenticity. It's familiar, but new; serious, yet warm and welcoming. It reminds me of home, while taking me far away. I just love it and I hope you do, too.

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