by Andrew Morrison | It’s been a few years now since Vancouver’s long overdue pizza renaissance began. If we had to pin a start date to it, it would be December 3rd, 2008, the day that Campagnolo launched on Main Street.
For certain, there were already one or two places to get really good pizza in town (CinCin comes to mind), but Campagnolo signalled the start of what would eventually become a flood. And the torrent brought not only great pies, but also new intel and greater appreciation for the pizza-making process.
We learned, for example, what VPN stood for (Vera Pizza Napoletana – the association that certifies Neapolitan pizza “authenticity”), and we started to understand the flours mixes more and respect the provenance of the tomatoes that put zip in the sauce. We became mozzarella freaks, accepted the fact that good pizza seldom arrives in a box, and basically stuffed our faces happy in the knowledge that we never had to suffer the indignity of shitty pizza for lack of alternatives ever again. Truly, what a delicious difference five years makes! Vancouver is now fluent in Great Pizza, and has left the basic pidgin of Panago et al behind.
Click ahead to view the Top 10 Pizzeria’s In Vancouver and vote for your own #1 pick.
(via) Though it doesn’t come all that close to Dick Proenneke’s “Alone In The Wilderness” masterpiece of a cabin, “The Watershed” – a tiny writer’s retreat in the wilds of Oregon – is nevertheless totally covet-worthy. It was designed by architect Erin Moore for her mother, nature writer and university professor Kathleen Dean Moor, in 2007. The 70 sqft room is framed in prefab steel and made out of red cedar and glass.
by Andrew Morrison | Gastown’s award-winning L’Abattoir restaurant has secured the building directly at its back (the original Shebeen) with plans to employ its 2,400 sqft as a private dining facility for a seated max of 50 people and 100 standing.
Tucked in what is now being referred to as the Water St. Garage between the rear-end of L’Abattoir and the new but ill-fated Boneta and between Water St. and Blood Alley, it is one of the oldest original brick structures in Vancouver (if not the oldest). Its most recent tenants were the short-loved Apres-Midi Teahouse and a retail outlet for Haven. If you poke your head in or look through the windows, you’ll see that the place is already gutted. The interior is going to be completely redone. Owners Lee Cooper and Paul Grunberg will be building a new second floor, which will be the dining room, and reserving the main floor for their offices and a brand new state of the art kitchen complete with a pastry op that will occupy the lovely wainscotted bay window addition seen in the photo above (bottom left).
So why go through the trouble of expanding like this just for private functions? Why not built it into a completely new restaurant? “We figured that instead of spreading and spending ourselves thin that it would be smarter to extrapolate our brand and reputation into the private realm,” Grunberg explained. “It hurts to have to turn away bookings of 20 and groups of 50 to 100, and we do it all the time at the restaurant. We’re just not equipped to do with the demand. The expansion is about keeping our talent in the same place and not dividing it up so that half the team is in one location and the other somewhere else. That’s a classic move. A lot of restaurateurs do it, but Lee and I are operational types. We’re hands on. So this is really more about maintaining control and very high standards while giving many of our customers what we haven’t yet been able to give them.” Grunberg also says that the design of the new space will be in keeping with the aesthetics of the original L’Abattoir, albeit “a little more refined.”
And what of lunch? Cooper informs me that we can expect three starters, three mains and three desserts to choose from, plus a small a la carte section. It’s too soon, he says, to provide specifics, but he assures me of one thing: “There will be a beef dip. I want a good beef dip.” So do I! The only two places that I know of that do passable beef dips are Pat’s Pub and White Spot, so there’s obviously a lot of room for improvement on that score.
We can expect construction to pick up after the holidays and the finished room to start accepting bookings for the Spring. Lunch service will launch shortly thereafter.
by Andrew Morrison | If I had not only a guarantee that dinosaurs were genuinely tame but also solid assurances that their breeding was being strictly controlled by heavily-armed paleo-geneticists, I’d be totally OK about having them back to roam in very small numbers.
I feel the same way about steakhouses. The adoration I had for them as a wide-eyed child of limited tastes has insured a residue of affection still powerful enough to bring me back to them at least once a year. And the more traditional they are, the better. I’ll have none of this Pinky’s “Steakhouse for Girls” or Black & Blue discotheque nonsense, thank you very much. I want a 75 year old server named Frank calmly maintaining my table with an economy of words and actions. I also want to bask in the moody darkness. Not the dumb Donnelly style of darkness seemingly designed to shield our senses from seething ugliness, but rather the type on that rare ethereal plane wherein the act of dining amplifies the scant light provided by candles and the occasional wall sconce. Its faint flame is nearly doused by the dark wood panelling but it still dances off the white jackets of the staff, flickers on the linen, and makes the odd bit of brass piping shine like gold. Such a light also lingers on the serrated blades of over-sized steak knives, bathes in the bowls of big Bordeaux wine glasses that need to be washed by hand on account of their vast brittleness, and takes the creepiness out of the ancient oil portraits staring back at you from the walls. Light is a key facet of the old school steakhouse atmosphere, anchoring the experience even more than the sound-deadening carpet or the refreshing absence of hats.
There are only two exemplars of such light in Vancouver, Hy’s Encore and Gotham Steakhouse. I’ve just eaten at both on back to back evenings. I regret that I didn’t take a camera or a notebook to Gotham, preferring instead to dine like a regular human being (just this once). The steaks were first rate – blackened Chicago filets and strips with crab legs and prawns – and the service was superb, but for the purposes of this story I’m only going to relate how things went at Hy’s Encore.
Hy’s, as you know, has been on Hornby St. since the early Cretaceous. Believe it or not, the decor has actually been “updated” from the Arthur Fishman-designed original (1960′s), but it’s as I’ve always remembered it: dark, deathly quiet, and frequented by corporate Ron Swanson types and old codgers wealthy enough to afford especially sharp dental work. The room’s baronial pretension doesn’t feel the least bit Vancouver-y, and I like that. It’s an absolute escape, like something out of Jules Verne. There’s no stylish bartender holding court with plaid pomp and twirled moustache, no ubiquitous soundtrack or desperately obsequious two minute “quality check” that makes you want to throw a punch (“How are the flavours tonight?” Pow!). It’s just ordered effortlessness, the sort of pampering that has mostly gone out of this world, or at least this city.
The food, as you can well imagine, hasn’t changed that much since I was a child. The Caesar salads and Bananas Foster are still made flawlessly a la minute and tableside [6, 3]. All of the ancient standards are there, everything from $17.95 Are You Kidding Me non-spot prawn cocktails  and slightly rubbery, garlic-wombed escargot  to French Onion soup and boozy Mussels Normandy. They even offer 1,000 Island salad dressing! The steaks are still perfect, only now they are even more exorbitantly expensive. My favourite remains the “house special” Gorgonzola Filet, an 8 ouncer done medium rare (I’m a lightweight, I know) topped with a melted knob of hot, fabulously stinky cheese. I always choose the double-stuffed potato as my starch. The distance between it and say, mashed potatoes is similar to the distance between a piece of red liquorice and a whole Black Forest cake. To wit, the kitchen scoops out the innards of a baked potato and then blends the hot stuff with butter and cream before piping it back into the jacket and topping it with sour cream, bacon, and chives. The combo sets you back $44.95, but did I mention the bread! My god, the bread…
I don’t think the kitchen gives a shallot about molecular gastronomy, craft beer, or charcuterie, let alone “local” and “sustainable” sourcing. Sourcing here is a matter of the back end of trucks and clipboards, not relationships with farmers or artisan suppliers. There is no team of whistling foragers combing the woods for mushrooms, and instead of a rooftop herb garden there is a castle parapet from which, one presumes, the staff are tasked with defending the building if ever there comes a rabid horde of abusive vegans.
And please let that be fine for once or twice a year, because steakhouses are woefully endangered. Granted, not all of them need to survive. Just a few, if you please. No one gave a damn when the graveyard-like West Cordova location of Morton’s closed in 2009. Likewise the stillborn Pinky’s chainlet, which just plain sucked hard until it went away. But if Hy’s were ever to fall, there would be no small amount of weeping, for that would be the end of the dinosaurs, and there would be no resurrections.
Hy’s Encore | 637 Hornby Street | Vancouver, BC | 604683-7671 | www.hyssteakhouse.com
(via) The Library: A World History, is a new book from Thames & Hudson by architecture historian James W.P. Campbell and photographer Will Pryce. From CNN: “When Dr. James Campbell of Cambridge University could not find a book that traced the history of library buildings through the ages, he decided to write one himself.” From the publishers: “Ambitious and wide-ranging, this is the first single volume to tell the story of libraries around ?the world, from the beginnings of writing to the present day.” The 320 page hardcover tome features over 292 images of libraries from around the world and from different eras, from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China. We’ve not yet seen a copy in Vancouver to date (although we haven’t looked that hard), but copies are selling for $60 or so online.
This new video from the Toronto Public Library is as captivating as it is exquisitely, touchingly, and fittingly made (the animated story is told through the turning pages of a book). We wish them the very best of luck in their ongoing tilt for culture against Mayor Rob Ford and his hayseed brother, Councillor Doug Ford, who once boasted - as if it was a badge of honour – that he didn’t know who Margaret Atwood was. Bonus: it’s narrated by Giller Prize winning writer Vincent Lam.
Don’t Argue might be the newest pizzeria in Vancouver, but it’s already so well loved that it’s a no brainer for this list. Their pies have everything going for them. Since Andrew wrote a story about the place just a couple of weeks ago, we’ll just crib from that:
I recently tried out Vancouver’s newest pizzeria, Don’t Argue, on the recommendation of Zulu Report columnist Nic Bragg. The 30 seater (estimate) is located at the very beginning of the Riley Park stretch of Main Street, just a couple of doors down from El Camino’s.
It’s on the stark side of charming in more ways than one. To begin with, they make some very good, uncomplicated pies, tossing the dough discs front and center (as you can see above). They don’t go the authentic Neapolitan VPN route, but it’s pretty close. Diners can expect a firmer-than-VPN crust (no immediate floppery) and a gently acidic tomato sting. If I had to pin them locally, they’re more akin to Pizzeria Farina than anywhere else. They use fiore di latte cheese on their Margherita and the basil is “live” on the line. Pizzas come in small (12″), large (18″), and Calzone, but if you’re just feeling a little peckish or flying solo they always have a few slices at the ready. A very limited but adequate selection of beer and wine makes it easy to choose a tumbler of Red Racer or a Sicilian Nero D’Avola for the win. Dessert is a panna cotta, simple but satisfactory.
There’s nothing to really dislike about the place, save for the first timer’s momentary lack of clarity as to whether or not it’s counter or table service (it’s the former). The prices are fair-ish (their Margherita costs a buck more than at Nicli Antica), and if you’re flummoxed because they don’t have a website or a social media program, tough luck. You’ll have to Tweet your dismay to the echo of their indifference.
The overall design leans a little towards the barren, but not in the modern sense. 1930′s is more like it, a la Norman Rockwell. The jukebox of CDs at the rear of the long room is discordant, but only in its ugliness (the tunes, however, are great). I really dig the seamless train station-style bench seating. Seriously, whoever did the joinery on that one deserves a case of beer.
3240 Main Street | Vancouver, BC | 604) 876-5408
Nook is an easy restaurant to love but a difficult one to find a seat at. Even though they’re consistently packed, there’s no pretension in the air and the staff know what they’re doing, both in the front and back of house. The pizzas are a close approximation of Neapolitan authenticity (using a gas-fired oven), and we’ve never had one that we wouldn’t want to order again. Bonus: tidy drinks list and a charming room designed by Scott Cohen and Stephan Gagnon (see also Les Faux Bourgeois).
781 Denman Street | Vancouver, BC | 604-568-4554 | www.nookrestaurant.ca
We’ve been in love with this place since before it was even open. Five years ago, it was just so incredibly exciting to have an Italian restaurant of mentionable calibre open up close to our office on the border of Strathcona (Farina is half a block closer). We were already very familiar with the operators – Tom Doughty, Robert Belcham, Tim Pittman – from their days at Fuel (later Refuel) and well before then at “C” and Nu. We had every reason to be stoked for it…
Like Farina, they make a fennel sausage pizza, but we prefer Campagnolo’s version because it’s simpler, substituting chilies for peppers and therefore not distracting texturally from the sausage. They also do a pie with fresh herbs, ricotta, castelvetrano olives, and basil that knocks our socks off. The oven is gas-fired, but you wouldn’t think it. Bonus: good rear bar area with well-made Italian cocktails and solid but short selection of wines by the glass.
1020 Main Street | Vancouver, BC | 604-484-6018 | www.campagnolorestaurant.ca
“Revolutionary” is a strong but fitting term to describe Nicli Antica, the sexy pizzeria that got Vancouverites salivating when Scout first broke the news of its coming back in April, 2010. Up until this point, Vancouver had never enjoyed a pizzeria certified “authentic” by the watchdog Vera Pizza Napoletana association, so it holds a dear spot in our hearts as the one that ramped up this city’s pizza game by a factor of awesome.
There are plenty of pizzas to choose from (including a sweet Bianca with rosemary potatoes and gorgonzola), but our fave is the Capocollo with fior di latte, red onions, capocollo, chili oil and plenty of arugula on top. And don’t miss their classic pasta e fagioli to start – think gigandes white beans, pasta, kale, and grana padano parmesan in a hot tomato and pork broth! Bonus: perfect tiramisu.
62 East Cordova | Vancouver, BC | 604-669-6985 | www.nicli-antica-pizzeria.ca
While I’ve not exactly made my appreciation for Barbarella a secret since its opening in 2011, it’s taken many visits to struggle my way towards this ultimate conclusion: they make the best pizza in Vancouver.
What makes it so is its founding philosophical approach to what is fundamentally a very subtle and personal art. Co-owner and pizzaiolo Terry Deane, who made pretty much every single pizza in the restaurant in its first year, told me at the outset that he wasn’t interested in being enslaved by particular recipes, styles and methods. In other words, he wasn’t wowed by the whole Vera Pizza Napoletana movement. He trusted his own palate and instincts. “I just want to make pizza the way I like it,” he said.
And so he experimented, settling on a sourdough starter that would result in a crust that was a few microns thicker than Neapolitan and just a little bit thinner than the typical New York slice. The edges would still blister thanks to a Ferrari-red monster of a gas over that could blow 900 degrees with ease (the temperature they use during service is in the 890s), and it would maintain a good char taste without flopping after its 75 second (estimate) bake time. The tomatoes would be California plums instead of San Marzano plums, which is to say that they would be sacrilegious to, say, the comically house proud owners of 10th place Bibo. But here’s a little secret: I’ve been working with plum tomatoes since I was a kid, and I can tell you with confidence that the difference is most often completely negligible. I can tell if they’re one or the other when I’m dealing with a pasta sauce, but that’s only if I’m the person making it. In pizza? Never. Especially when it’s in the right hands.
Over the years, that fact has needled me and my attitudes towards culinary “authenticity”. I cling to it in my own kitchen and expect it in others, but in the end I appreciate that it is merely the stuff of fetishism. For what, really, does it matter?
Well, it matters often enough to make it worth contemplation. For instance, consider the proper Roman-style spaghetti carbonara with eggs and guanciale (mmm, pig face). It is infinitely superior to the North American mangiacake version made with bacon, whipping cream, and powdered Parmesan. If the latter tasted better than the former, we’d have a problem, but it never ever is. Indeed, 99 times out of 100, dishes are deemed and celebrated as “authentic” because they require no further tinkering for improvement. I make Parisian-style omelettes (specifically inspired by those at Cafe Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés) at home with fines herbes – chervil, tarragon, parsley, chives – because they taste better than any other omelette that I know of. If I were to subtract a herb or add truffle oil or something equally dim, the overall concerted effect of the dish would be lost. It would cease to be – in my mind, at least – “authentic”.
Now, that’s one thing in my kitchen, but does authenticity matter in the restaurant business? I touched on the subject in a story long ago: “Authenticity”, I wrote, “is a loaded word in cooking, a shibboleth that confounds the uninitiated. It is the subjective stuff of myth, respect, pride, and entire days spent suffering fear and doubt over slow braises, crusts and stocks. Insecure cultures are buttressed by it. Organisations are founded to protect it. Restaurants are launched to exhibit it. And with so many cooks trembling with anxiety on account of it (while reaching for it), it’s no end of revealing that the overwhelming majority of diners remain completely unmoved by it.”
It’s true that some people don’t give a shit. For proof of that, walk into a generic pizza chain giant (of the calibre that regularly stuffs cheeseburgers inside the crust) and stare at a random customer munching on a slice for a minute and a half. Behold! Now that is a special kind of apathy!
But I like to think that Scout readers care. You probably wouldn’t have clicked from 10th place to 1st and read this far down if you didn’t (I love you for that, by the way). And if authenticity is a concern, it’s only ever trumped by taste.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Most pizzerias that are self-celebrated as “authentic” would sooner fold than allow for pineapples on their topping line. “Hawaiian pizzas are the devil,” is the protestation. Ok, I get it, and I agree. Simple ham and little pieces of canned pineapple are hardly exciting, but what if you house-smoke and brown sugar those little babies up and throw in some extra hot capocollo, aged mozzarella and Grana Padano parmesan cheese? They make it at Barbarella, and it’s flippin’ revelatory (bottom right in photo set above). If that pleasure makes me a mangiacake, then I’ll take my licks and deal with it, because to believe that pizza has somehow already been perfected (and should now therefore be left alone) is a leap of faith that I’m not willing to take.
Don’t get me wrong. A “certified” Neapolitan pizza made by a passionate and trained pizzaiolo is the stuff of loud and messy tableside foodgasms, but if that passion and training is maintained and infused with both intuition and confidence (a la Terry Deane), well then…what is certification but mere words on paper? You can’t eat those.
That’s how I’ve always felt about the pies at Barbarella, and that’s why it’s #1 on this list.
We’ve included a reader’s poll on the next page, so click on, pizza lover, and have your say…
Pizzeria Barbarella | 654 East Broadway | Vancouver, BC | 604-210-6111 | www.pizzeriabarbarella.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.
You’ve read our findings. Now it’s your turn. Please vote for your favourite Vancouver pizzeria below.
One of the more odd things that we do at Scout is catalogue all the eateries that we think stand to make an impact on Vancouver’s restaurant scene. We introduce our readers to these businesses when they are still in their embryonic stage, keeping a very rough photographic record of their different stages of construction as they inch and crawl towards opening day. As time goes on and we get used to the finished designs, it’s hard to imagine them as naked as they once were. The spaces depicted above might be unrecognisable to most, but I’m sure there are some among our readership willing to give this little game of ours a try.
How many can you name from photos 1 through 4? We have no clues for you, except to say that all of the above were opened within the last five years. Top marks to the right proper restaurant wonks who can identify more than one of them in the comments. It would be crazy if someone named three, and scary if someone got all four. And that’s the challenge, as we won’t be publishing any guesses in the comments until someone gets all four. Good luck!