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.