by Andrew Morrison | Charlie’s Little Italian has just opened up at 2610 Main Street in the old Habit Lounge spot. It’s the same owners/designers as before (Nicolay + Edmonds + Pike + Devine = Cascade, Union Bar, El Camino’s), so it is clean, tightly wrought, and pretty well representative of the direction that the Mt Pleasant neighbourhood has gone in the last decade. The drinks from Nick Devine are typically flawless (dig the house sodas and his “Gianfranco Zola” cocktail), and the menu is pretty approachably priced. Regarding the re-design, I think it was smart of them to move the bar up front and center and to turn the rear area into a cozy series of nests. It looks right and feels better than Habit’s two previous incarnations (pre-fire and post-fire). The service – befitting a room that was just a few days old – was air tight and enthusiastic.
The food appears to purposely beat a retreat away from the Italian authenticity that has been trending up in Vancouver for the past few years (eg. regional specificity, Neapolitan stamps of approval, etc), and bewilderingly back to the mangicake styles of old. At least I found this to be the case with the pastas. To wit, there was nowhere near enough black pepper, pork fat, and Pecorino in the carbonara, the tomatoes were woefully weak in the bland pomodoro, and the bolognese was red and dry instead of brown and wet. Of course, that’s exactly what Vancouverites had gotten used to during the 20th century, but in the 21st each pasta can now be had in all their authentic glory at places like Campagnolo, Campagnolo Roma, La Buca, La Pentola, La Quercia, and Cioppino’s (among others). The proper ones just taste better, and making them isn’t rocket science, so I’m at a loss as to why Charlie’s went in for such middling versions, that is unless they are indeed aiming for mangiacake as an exercise in irony, as if it were some sort of comfort food retro Anglo-Canadian thing, an expressed yearning for the proto-typical Cipriano’s of yore, the kind of place where Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were on a CD shuffle with Louis Prima and Rosemary Clooney (the red and white table cloth motif adorning the wall is a dead giveaway). If so, then Charlie’s is absolutely on the right track.
And I kind of get it, too. Personally, the usually well repressed food snob side of me was a little glad to see Vancouver move away from these sorts of treatments of Italian food, so I was more confused than disappointed. For others, it might be like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes. What’s more, the bread was certainly delicious and the burrata was…well…burrata (the cheese of God), and there’s a lot more to the menu than the few bowls that had me blinking like a pup. And who knows? Maybe the pastas were total misfires by a kitchen guy on his first day (the place is less than a week old). But even if it is as Italian as a £5 note, that’s the way the cuisine was always done in this city. And today, with so much of it replaced by the real deal, there’s probably a lot of room for the “Mambo Italiano” milieu to be revisited. I mean, it’s not like it was never fun, right? My advice: have a couple of drinks and don’t think so much. Salute!
Charlie’s Little Italian is open for dinner 7 days a week from 4pm. | www.charlieslittleitalian.com
Andrew Morrison is the editor-in-chief of Scout and BC’s Senior Judge at the Canadian Culinary Championships. He contributes regularly to a wide range of publications, radio programs, and TV shows on local food, culture and travel. He live and works in the vibrant Strathcona neighbourhood, where he also collects inexpensive things and enjoys birds, skateboards, whisky, shoes, many songs, and the smell of wood fires.