The most highly anticipated new restaurant project in Vancouver – Savio Volpe – is now open and flourishing. Located at 615 Kingsway in the Fraserhood, the casual Italian eatery has played to a full house (with at least one full turn) every night for nearly two weeks now. On night two, the 75 seater clocked 180 people in less than five hours. On night three (a Sunday), the kitchen started to run out of items before the peak of a dinner rush that began from the moment the doors opened. They’re now serving 200 covers a night, smoothing out the wrinkles – of which there were few – with the practice afforded by volume.
To contextualize it in Vancouver’s restaurant pantheon, I’d put Savio Volpe in the same rarified league as Chambar, Bao Bei, L’Abattoir, Wildebeest, and The Acorn, which is to say that its pre-opening hype was well founded, and that its continued nightly success is pretty much assured.
So how does a so-called ‘osteria’ – a casual tavern – attract so much attention out of the gate? As with many things that often catch our attention, it starts on the shallow end: Savio Volpe looks good.
Save for the name, nothing outward about it even whispers ‘Italian’. From the sidewalk – with its huge windows, massive wooden door and purposely out-of-reach golden wolf’s head knocker – the restaurant might seem a little imposing, even a little out of place at first, but it’s definitely attractive.
The interior is softer than the facade, but the modernity continues. There are no red chequered tablecloths, “Mediterranean” tiles with rustic glazes, or any of the other typical visual cliches and trappings of a red sauce joint (or what my friend Neil Ingram once described to me with revulsion as “the seven shades of Tuscan regret”). Instead, from the soaring glass frontage in, Savio Volpe is entirely its own thing, as unique to the milieu as, say, Cibo Trattoria was when it opened in 2007 (another departure from the typical), only more collected, more consistent, more considered, and more obviously of a piece. With its high ceilings, fluted walls, chevron fabrics, white marble accents, island bar, open kitchen, and eclectic mix of repurposed paintings (eg. twin Giotto-style portraits with the faces replaced by the wall mounts of light sconces), the restaurant seems at first to be as far removed from the cozy embrace of a country ‘osteria’ as can be imagined.
And yet, upon second glance the presiding palette is a homey, agricultural one. Witness the terracotta red, clay/slate, earthy shades of brown and beige. Fold your arms across a wooden table top with your ass in a hard wooden chair (some of the latter stained the colour of freshly turned soil). Notice how the thinly corrugated texture of the brown walls could be seen (squinting) as a bird’s-eye representation of ploughed fields, which makes sense given the walls’ occasional explosions of greenery. Also take note of the lighting, which is so dark that it might cause frustrated Instagrammers to freak. And then there’s the griglia, the wood-fired grill belching smoke and flame in the open kitchen. Emanating warmth and awesome aromatics, I don’t think its connection to the overall intent of the design can be overstated. The flame is like a radioactive Rosetta Stone; an intoxicating, volatile, and dangerously beautiful thing in and of itself, imparting so much to everything around it that if it were doused, all bets would be off. The design is a high-wire act and worthy of a long gawk.
The menu further punctuates Savio Volpe’s intended connection to the land. At once earthy and hearty (no doubt aided by the Fall opening), the dishes are very straightforward; what a former chef/boss of mine used to describe as “the simplest expression of the fewest ingredients” – lots of sage, tomatoes, beef, rabbit, pecorino, braising liquids, root vegetables, et cetera. I dig how it isn’t the least bit preachy or long-winded about ingredient sourcing. The larder is fully stocked with the good stuff – all from local, sustainable, and organic suppliers and producers – but they don’t mention this on the menu at all. They likewise don’t call attention to the fact that all of the breads and pastas are made in house just prior to service. This is by design, of course, for fear that the food might be perceived as “precious” or over-seasoned with braggadocio.
Aside from its good looks, I think the hype surrounding the coming of Savio Volpe also boils down to owner pedigree. There are three of them in total, the most experienced among them being Paul Grunberg, who also owns Gastown’s award-winning L’Abattoir. The former general manager of Market and Chambar (more evidence of The Chambar Effect) is hawkish on old school hospitality, and likes to tap tables and get to know his guests. He has a small army of regular customers who have been excited about the coming of his second restaurant. Having his name attached to Savio Volpe lends credence to the probability of its excellence, much in the same way as the coming of Kissa Tanto in Chinatown will surely benefit from its association with Joel Watanabe and Tannis Ling of Bao Bei.
Craig Stanghetta, of course, is best known for his restaurant and cafe designs in Vancouver, the most appreciated of which include the likes of Meat & Bread, Pidgin, Homer St. Cafe, and Revolver (Craig was also instrumental in creating the timeless aesthetic at Bao Bei). This is his first time owning a restaurant, not to mention the first time he’s ever designed one using his own money. It would follow, then, that he would agonize over every facet of the operation, over-thinking the shit out of even the most basic, mundane aspects. If this is true, it’s not to noticeably adverse effect. Personally, the more I get to know Savio Volpe the more certain I am that it’s easily the best looking restaurant to open so far this year. He and the crew from his design studio, Ste. Marie, did an excellent job.
Finally, there’s Mark Perrier, who did a four year stint at West under David Hawksworth before rising to the executive chef role at CinCin. He also toiled at a couple of Michelin-starred spots in the UK (eg. La Gavroche) and was Neil Taylor’s starting sous at Cibo. For the past couple of years, he’s been working at Two Rivers, dialling in his butchery game. He also staged at La Quercia to better understand pasta. This is him doing his thing…
I didn’t know Mark from Adam before Savio Volpe, but from what I’ve observed (and tasted) it’s pretty clear that he’s a chef’s chef and 100% dedicated to his craft. Exacting and intense with head craned forward to display an almost always furrowed brow, he involuntarily smiles clenched teeth when he concentrates and bugs out his eyes to such an effect that it looks as if he’s in the midst of a samurai swordfight. His exchanges with staff are staccato and to the point, and what he lacks in patience for bullshit (like any good chef) he more than makes up for with an enthusiastic affection for good ingredients and a general unwillingness to compromise his vision of Savio Volpe’s cuisine. He also has killer knife skills. Seriously. Watching him carve meat is like watching John Bonham play the drums.
Mark can also visibly teeter on the edge of internal chaos when faced with the prospect of disappointing anyone. He doesn’t have a “fuck it, just send it out” mentality when he’s in the weeds. Far from it. Case in point, during the restaurant’s third service, the kitchen ran out of a popular spit roasted meat and sage ravioli. Before the message had gone out to all the servers, the 86’d item popped up again on Mark’s printer. Instead of losing his shit or demanding that the server go back and ask the customer – who happened to be Trevor Bird, owner/chef at Fable – to order something else, he went into the back and made 12 raviolis a la minute, which risked (and almost resulted in) the total collapse of the kitchen’s rhythm in the middle of the dinner rush. I asked him why he did it and he deadpanned thus: “I’d look like an asshole if I didn’t…” As for whom this fear was founded – Trevor Bird or the staff – I’m still uncertain.
If Paul is the brains and Craig is the soul, Mark is either the heart or the nervous system. Probably both. This has attracted a crew around him. Either that or he’s been extremely lucky. The front (hot) line is pretty physically tight with room for four people, tops. Here you’ll find Melanie Witt from Wildebeest and Elementa; Ciaran Chung from Boneta, L’Abattoir, and Wishes + Luck; and former Espana chef Derek Gray (aka “Big Man”), who is Mark’s chef de cuisine. Cold side is a small army in the back, and I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t caught all their names yet, save for Peter Ciuffa, the restaurant’s pasta and salumi maestro; Diego, who Mark apparently hired in a Tim Horton’s line-up; and Patrick the dishwasher. If you want to join them, they’re hiring (seriously, email mark [at] saviovolpe.com if you’re down).
The floor staff is loaded with faces who are more familiar to me. The GM is Miguel Quezada, who you will recognise from L’Abattoir, Wildebeest and Pourhouse. I’ve always liked the guy, and not just because we both secretly appreciate Sade’s 1985 sophomore effort, Promise. As everyone in the business is painfully aware, good staff are hard to come by these days, and Miguel put together a really solid team. Overseeing the Italian-only wine program is Amorita Bastaja, who in addition to having an infectious love of Italian wines once upon a time wrote a wine column for Scout. It’s a great list, short and sweet and surprisingly diverse. She’s also building a reserve list, which I’m excited to see grow over time.
If memory serves, there are also the two Lisas; Alex from Brassneck and the Alibi Room; Laurenn of the long hair; the unflappable Kayla; Jenny who I remember from years ago at the Fairmont PacRim’s Raw Bar; Kaitlin from Bufala and Wildebeest; Meghan from The Acorn; Andrew of no experience but ample intuition (he started as a server’s assistant but is already moving up to expo); Eldric and Devin hustling behind the bar slinging coffees and drinks; the Italian import Kay (I think that’s her name…) and Christina; the incredibly capable Andrea (a new arrival from Bestie), and my eldest son James (he’s 13 and this is his first job).
I worked there, too. Like I did at L’Abattoir when it opened five years ago, I went through the entire training process with Savio Volpe‘s staff, and worked dry-runs plus the first week at the kitchen pass as expo. And I don’t know what made me feel older, seeing one of my own kids hustling hard in a restaurant or busting my own ass trying to keep up. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed my time there; it was an honour and a privilege, however short-lived it may have been.
I won’t gush too much about my first hand exposure to the food except to say that I really appreciate the approach behind it. Mark doesn’t want to focus on any one particular region of Italy (though it does pivot toward the south) or import a bunch of DOP “authentic” ingredients. I like that he’s sourcing everything he can get locally; connecting with local farmers and producers and expressing our seasons using Italian traditions. I’ve eaten every dish on the menu at staff tastings plus pre-shift family meals, but it would be a little weird to review the individual plates. I will say, however, that every dish looks good, and I was always on the prouder side of pleased to find myself actually serving them.
There is room for improvement, of course. From a critical perspective, I’d want to see larger portions and/or lower prices in one or two cases (overall, the value is outstanding); more platter-style presentations to further subtly infuse the guest experience with the intended casual ‘osteria’ or ‘alla famiglia’ feel; more disciplined course pacing (ie. sides shouldn’t come out before proteins); and less 86ing. It’s also a little too dark. I like seeing my food, and I don’t think the room would lose any of its sexiness if the lights went up by just a touch. These issues – minor though they might be – are symptomatic of a new restaurant that’s busier than maybe it thought it would be, and l expect they’re already resolved. The lighting thing is likely just my eyes, and they were born faulty.
I certainly made mistakes, confusing table numbers a few times. I also came close to dropping a plate or two. There was one customer sitting at the island bar (seat 15) who had the wrong food delivered to him twice in one sitting, and I witnessed a plate dropping with a loud shatter at his feet (not by me, thank goodness). He must have walked out of the restaurant that night thinking we were a bunch of amateur goofballs! I’ve already suffered a 4am nightmare on account of him, but mistakes happen in the beginning. That’s why restaurants do dry-run services and nights for just friends and family.
But then there are those things that are out of your control. In one busy night, for example, the fans for the hood vent shut down in the middle of service, which is to say the wood smoke from the griglia had nowhere to go. As the kitchen began to get noticeably smoky, all the lights suddenly went off. Because hooray. Thankfully, both issues were fixed a moment later, and things quickly returned to normal. And that’s when printers decided to crash. For one of the ten minutes at the height of this mayhem – when servers were having to write bills by hand and the kitchen was in full tilt mode (Mark looking like this) – I was so high on panic and adrenaline that if someone asked me to say something out loud I likely would have squealed. For the other nine minutes, I was just thrilled that my role at Savio Volpe was temporary. I’ve gotten soft! This was made plain to me with the arrival of a new hire named Andrea. I was to “show her the ropes” on the pass, but it very quickly became abundantly clear that I needn’t bother. She was ten times more adept at juggling bills than I’ve ever been. Hat’s off.
On the whole, it was cool to see ownership valuing the input of management and staff. There’s a sense of investment among everyone on board, as well as a real top-to-bottom camaraderie. This is further fostered by old school staff meals where everybody sits down together and eats right before service. It’s been tricky to time it right so that the kitchen sups with the floor, but that’s what Mark would like to eventually see. He’s pretty adamant about there being little daylight between the front and back of houses. He wants one big, happy family and thinks (quite rightly) that breaking bread together is the shortest and most enjoyable route to accomplishing and maintaining that. Staff Meals are huge for team building and morale. I wish more restaurants saw their value!
From the very beginning the owners have made good moves; choosing the right location in a receptive neighbourhood and collaborating with the right people. Take, for example, the charming branding fleshed out by Glasfurd & Walker. If you remember my first piece about the restaurant, Savio Volpe is in fact a character inspired by Italo Calvino’s Italian Folk Tales, a clever country fox who is always scheming for a good meal in a suave, Wile. E. Coyote sort of way. His first name is Savio (wise), and his last name is Volpe (fox). They didn’t need to create a complete story around this fox, but they did, and the restaurant, I suppose, is kind of like his hang out. I imagine him as Roald Dahl’s Mr. Fox, but played Marcelo Mastroianni instead of George Clooney. As cool as a cucumber. Even the soundtrack – lots of Santo & Johnny, The Belairs, Bowie, Zeppelin, The Growlers, etc. – is aces in my book.
Every bit of me (except my feet) is sad that my time on the floor is done, but at least I can now sit and eat as a paying customer and really take it all in from the perspective that I’ve grown more accustomed to. I’m looking forward to that in a big way. The images above and below were taken during the arc of my time at Savio Volpe, from construction and staff tastings/meetings to dry-runs and being eye-high in the Saturday night shit.
Thank you to everyone at the restaurant for being patient with me, and for taking such good care of my boy. He loves restaurants more than anyone his age really should, and I’m happy for him that he gets to start his career in one that really gives a damn. Grazie di tutto.
Andrew Morrison is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Scout. In addition to being a Taste Award-winning cookbook author, food writer and restaurant critic, he is the Senior Judge at the Vancouver Gold Medal Plates cooking competition; the National Referee and Co-Senior BC Judge at the Canadian Culinary Championships; and an advisor to both Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants Guide and enRoute Magazine’s annual Best New Restaurants In Canada issue. He is also a 20 year veteran of the food and restaurant trade. His proudest achievements to date are the table manners of his two boys.