If I were a betting man, Id wager that the 10-block stretch of East Hastings between Victoria and Renfrew will evolve into a foodie strip over the next decade.
It wont be become a dining mecca like Yaletown or Gastown, but will be similarly marked by a wide variety of flavours and themes. If the establishments-to-come will have anything in common, it will be the enjoyment of comparatively cheap rents and the need to depend chiefly on those who are generally wary of too much flash and eager to be seduced by quality, originality and value.
The area already has several casual eateries worthy of noting that are reflections of the environs: Roundel Cafe, Schokolade and The Red Wagon to name just a few. The most recent addition is Campagnolo ROMA. The 35-seater has just finished its first month of trade in the old Caribbean Hot Pizza Express location at 2297 East Hastings and the neighbourhood has responded by filling it up proof positive that theres an appetite for more dining options in the hood.
ROMA is an offshoot of the award-winning Campagnolo on Main. While the original serves up pan-Italian fare, this menu narrows the focus to the staple dishes one might find in the trattorias of Rome. Im all for the idea of expanding this concept of regional specificity, and expect (hope) well see owners Robert Belcham and Tom Doughty open other Campagnolos (ie: Firenze, Palermo, etc.) down the road.
Before the food, Ill start with Campagnolo ROMAs look, which borders on boring. Theyve borrowed the wood-panel motif and butcher-block tables from Campagnolo and the walls are the same leafy green as the ones at Refuel (their other restaurant in Kitsilano). What it lacks in aesthetic it more than makes up for in comfort.
Lining the length of the narrow space are the same plush, brown-leather banquettes and chairs that used to cradle the well-to-do bums at the short-lived DB Bistro/Lumiere (rescued in the fire sale this past winter). ROMAs atmosphere is lively and the servers are well-trained.
Doughty and Belcham have brought in the affable Ted Anderson, formerly the chef at Refuel, to do the cooking. The short menu he executes is likely less demanding than what hes used to, so anything less than perfection should come as a surprise.
It begins with a list of antipasto prepared in the open kitchen bar by a garde manger who pulls double duty as the bartender. I enjoyed the local octopus, licked with red wine vinegar and a chop of what looked and tasted like escarole ($12). Ditto the bruschetta, which came mounted with a very flavourful mix of marinated eggplant, pine nuts and mozzarella drowned in high quality olive oil ($8.50).
Having had the original Campagnolo to show them how, ROMA serves near-flawless pies and certainly the best east of Main; slightly over-charred but just weighty enough on the crust so that they dont go limp until well after it cools (at which point theyve likely already been devoured in full).
There are five to choose from: the classic Margherita with fior di latte cheese and fresh basil ($12.50); the stalwart Marinara with oregano and garlic ($10.50); the apt Romana with olives and anchovy ($12.50); the punchy Diavolo with spiced salami and aged provolone ($15); and the Biancoverde, treated with olives and arugula ($12).
Pastas are predictably bang on as well. I really enjoyed the Spaghetti Carbonara on account of how hard it is to get an authentic one in Vancouver. Most restaurants do it with a ton of cream and bacon.
Here its properly ugly: all eggy and so murdered with black pepper that it appears almost grey in colour, just the way its supposed to be ($13.50). As for the pork shards involved, Im 90 per cent certain they were the leaner, more delicate guanciale (cured cheek) and not pancetta (I would have asked, but I was too busy inhaling the bowl).
The tagliatelle, gently spiced with Calabrian chili and given extra zing with artichokes and lemon, allowed for its fresh noodle notes to sing loud and proud ($12). Both the tiramisu and honey-flavoured panna cotta wowed for dessert ($8).
Only one thing bothered me, and its because I believe that a restaurant should never charge anywhere near the average price of a dinner plate for a single glass of wine unless its something truly magnificent. When I paid the bill, I noticed that the daily special Merlot my wife casually ordered was $14 a glass, which exceeded the cost of every dish we ordered, save one.
But what really ticked me off was the wine in question was Doughtys own Montagu Cellars label (the polymath also makes three barrels of wine from local grapes). Its his right, of course, to charge whatever he likes for his own wine, but when I saw that his other selections averaged out to be $5 less per glass, it tripped up what had otherwise been a fantastic experience.
Campagnolo ROMA | 2297 East Hastings | 604-569-0456 | CampagnoloRoma.com