Angelo Tosi squints at the hand-tabulated receipt in his hand. "Twenty eight cents? What the hell did I do there? Oh, it should be $2.80. Sorry. It's getting late. I had better go home and see Mama."
It's cold and dark inside Tosi Italian Food Import Co., the dusty dry goods store at 624 Main St. that the proprietor's father started in 1906. The ramshackle shop has barely changed since it opened, but Mr. Tosi, who is 84, can't afford to turn on the heat or pay the taxes any more.
Tosi's is up for sale, another sacrifice on the altar of gentrification that is gobbling up Vancouver's Chinatown to make way for condos and slick cafés.
But who and what will take Mr. Tosi's place? Where will people shop for pasta, olive oil and Parmesan cheese?
687 Main St., Vancouver, 604-428-4364, dalina.ca
The first time I walked past Dalina, shortly after the modern Italian delicatessen, grocery store and coffee shop hybrid opened in early December, there was a doorman stationed at the entrance, ostensibly to greet guests, but also to ward off vagrants. While shop security is hardly new to Chinatown – even at Tosi's you have to be buzzed in – the optics of putting a sleek-suited concierge in one of Vancouver's lowest-income neighbourhoods was obnoxious.
The elitist sentry has since been dismissed. Instead, customers are greeted by a chichi display of florist-arranged succulents that have been given pet names. Corey, a tall, fleshy jade plant potted in white stones, sells for $400. Uh, can you say tone-deaf?
Owned by the Bosa Group, Dalina is located on the ground floor of the developer's newly opened BlueSky Chinatown rental apartment building. The gleaming-white expanse of marble and subway tile, accented with a shiny copper-pot installation above the open prep kitchen, offers a fairly large selection of designer groceries, all enticing and much of it locally sourced. If I were a BlueSky resident, I would most certainly welcome the convenience of being able to dash downstairs to stock up on biodegradable bamboo bathroom tissue or satisfy a craving for Chez Christophe pastry flutes. If I were a senior living around the corner in assisted housing, I might be confused and resentful.
The coffee bar pulls excellent, deeply dark espresso made with a house-label Italian roast. The self-serve taps dispense many types of milk (almond, soy, low-fat, regular and cream) along with complimentary sparkling water. A communal bench and small tables offer seating for 16.
But the deli? Meh. Surprisingly, there isn't much cheese for sale. And only a small selection of cured meats aside from a conspicuous spread of truffle salami. Premade sandwiches on pale ciabatta are scantly stuffed. A bean and lentil salad cries out for acid. An authentically meaty yet bland Bolognese (light on the tomatoes, but heavy on the diced celery, carrots and veal) tasted better at home when I could salt it properly. Croissants (the pastry selection leans more French than Italian) are nicely crisped but not very flaky.
"How was everything?" a cook shouts out from the kitchen. (The service, while friendly, feels almost desperately earnest.) I don't have the heart to tell her that I was underwhelmed.
Dalina is a New York-style boutique, a miniature Urban Fare if you will, well suited for Vancouver's increasingly overpriced, pint-sized, condo-living, image-conscious lifestyle. I imagine it will expand to other locations and become the toast of Yaletown in a heartbeat. But in slowly gentrifying, rough-and-real Chinatown, it feels awkwardly out of place. And yet the coffee shop looks busy. So perhaps its arrival is merely a sign of the times – the end of times for some.
620 Quebec St., Vancouver, 604-563-1700, pazzochow.com
Oh, wow. I was craving something chocolate after a delicious lunch of tangy chicken soup and fresh tagliatelle. Maya Sciarretta, the proprietor of this adorably tiny takeout shop, tempted me with a raspberry-cheesecake brownie. I thought I'd have a few nibbles and save the rest for home. But now all I'm left with are a few fudgy crumbs and a faint whiff of sour cream. That was so good. Where did it go?
A skateboarder waiting for an Americano laughs knowingly. "I never make it all the way home with sweets from here."
Pazzo Chow, with its small cooking counter, self-serve fridge and single table wedged into the corner, has the feel of a neighbourhood kitchen party. Ms. Sciarretta, who grew up in Chinatown and still lives there, opened the shop three years ago as a means of selling her bottled Sugo Sauces (sugosauce.com). A short daily fresh sheet includes one of the four sauces on handmade pasta. (The puttanesca I tried was plump with olives and rich with anchovies, generously ladled over rustically chewy tagliatelle heaped with arugula and Parmesan.)
There is also a daily salad chock full of beans, shredded greens and roasted vegetables. And a homestyle soup, just like mama would make. The chicken cheese broth with orzo was tightened with bursts of lemon and a fistful of fresh parsley.
Zesty! "Yeah, tanginess has kind of become our signature," Ms. Sciarretta says with a wink.
The sweets are made by Ashley Watson of Brown Paper Packages Ice Cream, who works in the kitchen. Her lemon-olive-oil ice cream, among other flavours, has a cult following.
The retail pantry offers a small range of local and Italian-made basics: lentils, tuna, olive oil, chocolate, flour. And some of it (the $13 artisan pasta, for example) is pretty steep.
But as I sit there slurping my soup and chitchatting with the immensely lovely Ms. Sciarretta about the idiosyncrasies of Italian parents, tips on freezing fresh pasta and the curiously quenching taste of cinnamon water, I feel right at home.
Apparently, many of her customers feel the same way. They haven't deserted her for Dalina. "A lot of them have gone to check it out," she says. "They come back and tell me it's not great. I feel bad for them – but that's really good for us," she adds with a mischievous grin.
Indeed, having a place like Pazzo Chow around is good for the whole neighbourhood.