At Vancouver's Di Beppe, every hour is happy
The real beauty of the vibrant Gastown dinner spot is that it's an all-occasion type of place
On the eerily empty sidewalks of Gastown, snow is falling in fat white clumps. Cocooned inside Di Beppe's surprisingly busy dining room, the flakes, illuminated by streetlamps, are only visible if you strain your neck and look through the very tops of the tall, wood-framed windows. The rest of the glass is fogged with the steam of vermouth-licked laughter, boiling pasta pots and contented sighs.
Swingy jazz and soulful funk drift through the clattering of forks, the slurping of slippery noodles and the shattering crunch of Neapolitan pastries stuffed with cream.
The mood is as vibrant as the cruisey back wall: whitewashed brick punctuated with splashes of Ferrari yellow; graphic Giro d'Italia-inspired posters; a Baretta moped parked high in one corner; and industrial swing-arm task lamps cantilevered over hard benches covered in tan-Naugahyde snap cushions that look as if they belong on a vintage jet boat.
Chic and cosmopolitan, the room also has a homey quality. Puffy parkas hang in squishy bunches on the backs of wooden booths. Tightly squeezed marble-topped tables are scattered with wine in squat tumblers and softly glowing Victorian glass candles (the kind stashed in Christmas boxes in the basement) in red, white and green.
The settings all get pushed aside when the pizza arrives. At a nearby table, it comes in a metre-long slab mounted across three pedestals, eliciting loud oohs and aahs. Ours is a more modest, six-slice rectangle edged in thick, pillowy crust. It is topped with brilliant green, garlicky rapini and glossy white lumps of softly oozing crescenza cheese that shimmer like icy disco balls.
On an otherwise quiet, wintry night in Vancouver, this is as close as it gets to la dolce vita. Congratulations to Kitchen Table Restaurants (Ask For Luigi, St. Lawrence, Pourhouse, Pizzeria Farina) for making an everyday pizza-and-pasta joint feel like a special occasion.
The real beauty of Di Beppe is that it is actually an all-occasion type of place. While the restaurant only serves dinner, there is a café on the other side that opens at 9 a.m. Separated from the dining room by a velvet curtain in a yellow-framed doorway, it is casually appointed in hexagonal-tiled floors, classic European wooden chairs and a self-service counter filled with all sorts of Old World goodness.
You can come for breakfast and toss back a quick coffee and cornetto while standing at a bar table in authentic Italian style. The espresso program is overseen by Chris Giannakos, who owns nearby Revolver Coffee. The beans are Carraro 1927, imported from Italy, and the drinks are uncompromising (no latte art here). The excellent sfogliatelle – clam-shaped pastries fashioned from dozens of crackly, flaky, paper-thin layers and filled with dense almond-ricotta custard – are made by Small Victory's classically trained pastry maker, Emiddio Isernia.
At lunch, you can grab a quick mortadella or prosciutto sandwich to go (they're priced by weight) and perhaps do some shopping. The canned tomatoes, amaretti cookies and other goods are available for sale.
Aperitivo, otherwise known as Italian happy hour, is now available from 3 to 6 p.m., with prebatched biciclettas and aperol spritz offered in double-serve bottles for a mere $8. Or maybe you're in the mood for a glass of lambrusco. The fizzy red wine goes down swell with the new cicchetti menu, which includes salumi misti, formaggio and fruit mostarda and the superlative octopus crostini with its creamy layer of potatoes, first cooked in milk and crème fraîche, then baked into raw pizza dough that is crisped up light and fluffy in an oil-greased pan.
The café, which remains open until closing time, also makes for a comfortable holding area that solves the problem Ask for Luigi lovers always face: where to wait for a dining-room table (neither restaurants take reservations).
If Ask for Luigi and Di Beppe (Beppe being the Italian diminutive of Giuseppe) were brothers, the former would be the moody, artistic dreamer who jams with his bohemian tribe in a gritty hideaway. The latter is the happy-go-lucky mama's boy, who always looks suave and makes everyone laugh, but doesn't want any surprises. Raisins in meatballs? Whad'ya crazy? You must be from Sicily.
What they share in common is an exceptionally talented sister, Letitia Wan, who runs circles around everyone. Although J.C. Poirier (St. Lawrence) is the titular head of both restaurants, he is more of a consultant these days. He handed the reins over to Ms. Wan at the highly decorated Ask for Luigi about three months after it opened in 2013. It is now overseen by Ivy Yang and boasts an all-female front of house – a notable achievement in these revolutionary times.
Promoted to executive chef at Di Beppe, Ms. Wan is cooking with the cool confidence of a polished pro. These are simple dishes, staples from the region of Lazio and the province of Rome, made from great ingredients and with sure-handed technique.
Her pasta – dried Rustichella d'Abruzzo spaghetti and rigatoni – has a bouncy spring. Yolky carbonara, salty with pecorino and humming with generous lashes of fresh-cracked pepper, clings to the noodles with the elegance of silk stockings.
Amatriciana, sunshiny bright from lightly stewed San Marzano tomatoes, has a crispy crunch from hand-cut guanciale roasted in thick chunks, and the grassy finish of good olive oil. Lasagne is lushly layered with full-flavoured Bolognese and creamy Béchamel. (Just don't order the half-size available in the café; laid on its side to reheat, the noodles get a tad too brittle.)
The pizza is a marvel of airy fluffiness that offers a comforting cushion into which you can really sink your teeth – a plush balm to all the thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza now ubiquitous in this city. Ms. Wan uses fine-milled, locally produced flour, a three-day fermentation process and an electric-deck bakery oven in which the dough steams and puffs directly atop stone.
There are also tender meatballs moistened with bread soaked in milk, bright salads strewn with whole anchovies and fragile cannoli shells filled with zesty ricotta. Wines are well priced (only two bottles more than $100), the grappa selection is copious and every meal is finished with homemade chiacchiere, strips of lemony fried pastry dough coated with powdered sugar.
This isn't the type of food that will blow your mind. But it is the type of food you could eat day after day – in snow, rain or sun – and feel very, very happy.