The festive season is upon us and this year is going to be better. Or at least better than last year when banquets, cocktail parties and big fat family reunions were all off the table.
I missed those types of gatherings, to be sure. But what I really missed – what made me ache for social connections that weren’t powered by Zoom – was the annual excuse to catch up with old acquaintances outside my inner circle for a casual bite and holiday drink.
Life, of course, hasn’t fully returned to normal. So thank goodness for aperitivo.
This splendid Italian tradition of enjoying a light meal and elixir at the end of the workday as a warm-up to dinner is having a Vancouver renaissance just in time for these cautiously awkward holidays.
Although similar to happy hour, aperitivo is more food friendly and generally accompanied by cicchetti – small snacks such as crostini, olives, cured meats, croquettes and arancini. You can make a meal of it, but don’t have to commit as much time as you would for lunch or dinner.
This being an Italian ritual, wine will always be an option. But the idea is to open the palate with pleasantly bittered drinks – vermouth, amaro, sherry and spritz – that are light and relatively low in alcohol.
The modern aperitivo movement, as embraced by local wine bars, is also less circumscribed. It starts early in the afternoon and often stretches late into the evening, which gives you the opportunity to socialize when rooms aren’t as crowded.
At Vancouver’s new aperitivo bars, you can have your festive outing while keeping it small, contained and delicious, too.
The Wine Bar at Caffe La Tana
635 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, BC, 604-428-5462, caffelatana.ca
Of all the new aperitivo bars, La Tana is my favourite because the food is incredible.
Sure, the hand-rolled pasta and sugared bomboloni have been pretty good since this daytime café and specialty grocery shop opened as an adjunct to Pepino’s Spaghetti House three years ago.
But now that the owners have finally – finally – jumped through all the hoops for a rezoning permit, received their liquor licence and opened in the evenings with a small-plates menu from new culinary director Phil Scarfone and rising star Vish Mayekar, this kitchen is knocking its creamy croquettes and fluffy truffle-honey ricotta crostini all the way to the Adriatic.
Aperitivo is served daily from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., when the refrigerated deli case is covered up to create more standing-room space for nibbling sausage-wrapped olives and prosciutto crostini while tipping back discounted house wine and chinotto-spiked negronis.
But the serious small plates roll out from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
There is an amazing albacore crudo rubbed with orange zest – as lovely to smell as it is to devour – served in a fragrant pool of Meyer lemon juice with a green-and-orange mosaic of basil and Calabrian chili oils floating on top.
Molten beef cheeks with pickled chanterelles sink into a soft, creamy bed of heirloom polenta. Saffron arancini are golden-fried and moistly stuffed around soft kernels of premium Arborio rice that don’t collapse into starchy mush. Radicchio and chicory in Gorgonzola dressing is boldly bitter, sweet, crunchy and moreish.
Tender ricotta gnudi is sprinkled in roasted sunchokes, crispy sage and a single-variety black peppercorn from Kerala, India that is so pungently perfumed Mr. Mayekar grates the precious seeds with a microplane.
Many of these great ingredients – including curiously tangy caper leaves and ambrosial pine cone syrup – are available for purchase from the alimentari shelves lining this cozy space, which is festooned at night with twinkling lights.
And if you’re really serious about hitting the off hours, drinks start pouring with breakfast sandwiches and pasta at 10 a.m. They include great cocktails, Italian craft beer (Birra Flea), wild ciders (Salt Spring Pineapple Amaro), rare wines and the deepest selection of grappa and amari I’ve seen in Vancouver, all available in antique-crystal flights.
1029 W. Cordova St., Vancouver, BC, 604-687-9887, giovanebacaro.com.
Opened last summer in the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel by Kitchen Table Restaurants (Ask For Luigi, Di Beppe, et al), this all-day wine-and-cicchetti bar celebrates the signature small plates of Venice: whipped salt cod, milk-poached pork, buttered anchovies and sarde di soar – deep-fried sardines (or local sablefish) deep fried, marinated in sweet vinegar and served sprinkled with raisins and pine nuts.
It’s a sleek, modern space fitted with high-tops and narrow, stand-up tables that give it a buzzy vibe while still offering plenty of room to spread out.
However, the lack of a clear host stand at either of the two entrances makes this coffee-shop conversion feel a wee bit confused. And the display case of mix-and-match cicchetti is kind of lost in a back kitchen at the end of a long wheelchair ramp.
I do, however, recommend that you hike over to the kitchen and check out the crostini display before ordering.
There are some very good dishes on this menu. And the daily pastas, which have included prosciutto-stuffed cappelletti in pine mushroom brodo or stinging nettle sbocciare filled with saffron zucchini and caciocavallo fonduta, look excellent.
But the tapas plates can be very rich. And if you don’t order selectively, you could easily end up with an overload of butter and creamy aioli in every bite
Fiorino Italian Street Food
212 E. Georgia St., Vancouver, BC, 604-568-0905, fiorinovancouver.com
When Giovanni Mascagni moved here from Florence to become a bush pilot, he fell in love with Vancouver’s culinary scene but hungered for his hometown’s favourite street food – schiacciata sandwiches on a thin, crispy focaccia that is more akin to pizza dough.
So when he and his roommates decided to open a casual panini bar, he went back to Florence to apprentice for six months at one of its most famous bakeries, Chicco di Grano in the Sant’Ambrogio market.
Recently opened in Chinatown, Fiorino Street Food makes very good schiacciata that is light, airy and crusted in salt. Lunch offers a vast assortment, stuffed with various meats and swiped with walnut and artichoke cremas.
You can also find a limited selection on the aperitivo menu, which runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., alongside basic Italian cocktails and house wine for $1 an ounce.
The rest of the menu won’t win any awards. The fritto misto is shockingly soggy and the carpaccio is drowned out by cheap truffle oil.
But the restaurant has a lovely homespun quality with its classic ceramic tiles, straw-wrapped Chianti bottles lining the bar and Italian pop songs softly soaring in the background.
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