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How to eat and drink like an Italian in Vancouver

Your guide for where to dine out, drink coffee, and shop for ingredients like an Italian in Vancouver
Spaghetti alla Busara being made at Casa Mia restaurant in Vancouver. The dish is one of many authentic Italian eats you can find in and around the city, according to the executive director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada - West.

Like many native Italians, Vancouver's Ilaria Baldan is particular about how - and when - she drinks her coffee.

"I like my coffee short, and cappuccino before noon," Baldan tells V.I.A. over the phone. 

The specificity is no surprise; Lonely Planet calls Italy the "spiritual home" of coffee on the globe, and every religion has its dogmatic principles.

Baldan, who is the executive director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada - West (ICCC - West), hails from Venice, where, like in the rest of Italy, a cappucino is strictly a morning beverage, to be sipped while standing at the bar or perched at a tiny table. Those milky, sugary, giant portable cups of Starbucks at any hour of the day just aren't it for Italians.

Fortunately for Baldan, and anyone who wants to drink - or eat - like an Italian in Vancouver, the city offers an abundance of authentic experiences, from specialty grocery stores to gelato shops, restaurants, and, of course, caffes.

Where to get authentic Italian ingredients, dishes in Vancouver

To help locals and visitors alike, the ICCC - West has been compiling its Italian Food Map for Western Canada, featuring member restaurants and stores. Baldan notes that the map is a new project and locations are being added to help people find the products and dishes they crave.  

Those products can be as essential and familiar to all kinds of consumers, like olive oil - but not all bottles are created equal, cautions Baldan. 

When shopping at local stores, including ones that specialize in Italian products, like Bosa Foods, Baldan urges customers to look for some clues on the packaging that indicate it's an Italian item. First, check that it stipulates "extra virgin," she recommends, then, look for an indication the olives were sourced from Italy, as opposed to the olive oil merely being bottled in Italy. Some brands will even indicate what specific region in Italy the olives were grown, and those produced under strict monitoring will have a special demarcation, like the DOP or IGP logo. 

Head to the deli counter to talk with an expert about Italian cheese and meat and ideal pairings. Bosa Foods/Facebook

With a product so dominant in Italian households, like olive oil - "a thing we really cannot live without," describes Baldan - Italians can be choosy. Similarly, Baldan says home cooks of Italian heritage often seek out particular brands of dried pasta. "We're very picky," she explains. Sometimes product choices are fuelled by nostalgia or a sense of being back in Italy; for Baldan that's the Rio Mare brand of tinned fish, which for her is synonymous with summertime picnics at the shore in Venice. 

For lovers of Italian food who might hail from other shores, Vancouver's specialty markets offer a welcome level of expertise to help guide purchases like when you're assembling an Italian meat or cheese board. Head to the deli counter at Bosa's Vancouver stores if you're in search of top-quality imported Italian cheese; similarly, visits to the deli counter at Cioffi's or La Grotta del Formaggio will yield expert results. 

That interaction and the counter staff's ability to portion out your selections makes all the difference, explains Baldan, who points to "the fact that you can get the product fresh," and that "they're cutting the amount you want, like prosciutto." Those experts can offer advice on what to choose and what to pair it with, too. 

"People want to know where their food comes from, understand what's behind the products, try new things," adds Baldan. Keep an eye out, too, for stores that offer tastings of their products, which gives customers the opportunity to try new things. 

When it comes to restaurants, Baldan says she is often in search of a taste of home. Gelaterias like Passione are scooping up modern flavours made in the Italian tradition, like matcha, alongside hallmark staples such as stracciatella (milk with chocolate shavings) or fior di latte (milk, translated as "flower of milk"). A spot like Giovane Bacaro, whose name is the Venetian term for a bar, beckons with its classic spritz cocktails and cicchetti, a classic style of post-work small bites. 

And that coffee? Baldan recommends those in search of coffee the way she and many of her fellow Italians prefer can get a terrific short espresso in Vancouver at Sciué's caffe locations. Just don't forget to get that cappucino order in before noon. 

How to eat like an Italian in Vancouver 

Baldan curated her version of il pasto perfetto (the perfect meal) of authentic Italian fare in Vancouver, driven by her roots in the beautiful northeast city of Venice, presented in her own words.

Antipasto 1: Cicchetto with polenta and baccalà mantecato at Giovane Bacaro (salt cod with polenta)

Head to Bacaro in Vancouver for a traditional Venetian aperitivo dish like salt cod on polenta. Bacaro/Facebook

A “must” for a Venetian like me, reminds me of the aperitivo “in fondamenta” (which means along the side of the canals). Baccala` mantecato is usually what I asked my nonna to prepare for me when I went back to visit. Perfect with an Aperol spritz or with a Cynar spritz if you are feeling original, or a Gingerino if you are alcohol free. Bacaro was the first one in Vancouver to serve baccalà mantecato and I am forever grateful for that (as it is very difficult to make, and would not dare doing it myself).

Antipasto 2 : "Frico" at Carlino (a cheese and potato dish)

Something so niche you don’t even find it in Italy outside the borders of the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia (North East, border with Slovenia). I bet many Italians have no idea what it is either.

Primo: Spaghetti alla Busara at Casa Mia (Spaghetti with langoustines)

This is also something that reminds me of home and that I have never seen anywhere else in Vancouver before. Cantino do Spade is probably where I would be eating this dish if I were in Venice. The restaurant has been around since 1448!

Paired with: Gavi DOCG wine

This wine can be found exclusively at BiBo in Richmond, as the owner imports it directly from his hometown.

Dessert: Sfogliatella alla ricotta at D’Oro Gelato e Caffé (filled puff pastry)

Originally from Naples, simply delicious. Difficult mission to find a very good one in the Lower Mainland.

After dessert: Granita al caffé at Motoretta (icy, creamy treat)

And you are ready to board a ferry to Sicily.  

La Grande Festa: Gala to celebrate ICCC - West 

For another opportunity to honour Italian culture in Vancouver, the ICCC-West will celebrate its 30th anniversary with La Grande Festa,  a deluxe gala dinner that is open to its members, partners and the public. La Grande Festa takes place on Sept. 29, 2022 at 6 p.m. at Coast Coal Harbour Vancouver Hotel, with partial proceeds to benefit Variety - The Children’s Charity.

Gala tickets are available to purchase online or by phone at 604-682-1410.

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