Food Truck, Italian

Review: In Vacanza Pastificio

Visit our Instagram page to see more photos

By Michael White

Until recent years, a longstanding cliché about Manhattanites was that a meal would have to promise near-religious transcendence to compel them to travel across a bridge into one of New York City’s four other boroughs.

Yet while the Lions Gate and Ironworkers Memorial bridges that separate Vancouver from North Vancouver aren’t exactly the equivalent of the Brooklyn or Queenboro in terms of undue schlep, they nevertheless represent a psychological hurdle to many of us who live south of the Inner Harbour.

All of which is to say that Kley and I had high expectations of In Vacanza Pastificio, an (obviously) Italian-themed food truck that was, on the night we tried it, parked in front of the craft distillery Sons of Vancouver (SOV) on the North Shore.

To be clear, the very idea that we considered ourselves to be going out of our way was ridiculous. The journey from our apartment in South Burnaby to SOV’s door was less than 20 minutes by car — a fraction of the time we’ve spent on transit for take-out fried chicken we then turned around and brought home.

We discovered In Vacanza Pastificio (IVP) — or, rather, they discovered us — via Kley’s many recent Instagram posts about his vacation in Florence and Rome. No sooner had he come back than IVP proprietor Eryn MacKenzie flew there with chef Anthony Cardoza to conduct a three-week “research and recipe development” expedition that took them from Milan to Venice, Cinque Terre to Naples, the Amalfi Coast to Sicily. Erin and Kley subsequently commiserated via DM about their mutual withdrawal from la dolce vita after returning home. Kley, in fact, has remained in mourning for more than two months, consoling himself with Italian pop songs, a newly established aperitivo ritual, and an ongoing search for local restaurants whose food and atmosphere might replicate the revelatory gastronomic experiences he had overseas.

In this regard, Kley and Eryn have much in common. Eryn was moved to create IVP after a backpacking trek through Italy in early March of 2020, during which she learned to make scratch pastas and sauces. Returning to Vancouver at the exact moment the pandemic was wrapping its imprisoning arms around the world, she resolved to share her newfound kitchen skills with local diners, and charge prices that hew closer to what you might pay for a life-changing bowl of rigatoni from a nondescript street vendor on Campo de’ Fiori (which is to say, not very much at all). In vacanza, by the way, means “on vacation.”

Despite a burgeoning law career, within months Eryn had launched IVP, which won awards for its food and unwittingly became a focal point of North Vancouver’s outdated policies regarding mobile eateries. Kley and I didn’t know this when we rolled up for our first taste a few weeks ago. We only knew we were hungry.

IVP’s current arrangement is that you can get your food to go from their window or have it brought to you while you enjoy drinks inside SOV’s cramped, lively and utterly lovely tasting lounge. We fully intended to make an evening of it, so we approached the scenario appropriately: we claimed the last remaining pair of seats at the bar, took delivery of some delicious drinks, and proceeded to wildly over-order from IVP’s menu.

Except, we soon realized, we didn’t over-order, because everything brought to us was so humbly yet overwhelmingly excellent that we don’t want to even contemplate having passed it up. Out of the sort of disposable paper trays that might typically hold sliders or deep-fried Oreos from a midway concession, we ate pastas that were the match of virtually anything we’ve had elsewhere in and around Vancouver — and, in Kley’s telling, the match (or very near to it) of some of the pastas he had in Italy.

The “Pasta Tasting Flight,” made up of four half-size orders, is a thoughtfully provided solution for those who, like us, are theoretically greedy yet realistic about their stomach’s limitations. We chose Cacio e Pepe, Bucatini all’Amatriciana, Spaghetti al Pomodoro, and Linguine Puttanesca — each a purposely, perfectly understated creation that, in the proper Italian tradition, serves to showcase the quality of a select few ingredients rather than trying to dazzle with complexity. That means authentic San Marzano tomatoes in the sauce, Tipo “00” flour and local free-range eggs forming the noodles, and fresh basil leaves and a modest showering of Parmigiano Reggiano when the dish calls for it. There was also a simply dressed salad of arugula and tomato hiding under a luscious puck of specially imported burrata that tasted like an evocation of the sun-filled springtime Vancouver seems determined to not give us this year.

All of this blissful indulgence was consumed in the happy contentment of SOV’s above-mentioned tasting room, where their exemplary spirits, made just steps from where we sat, form the basis of cocktails that were worth a bridge-crossing on their own. (I’d like it noted that the Vito Corleone shouldn’t be taken off the list under any circumstances.) Service was as relaxed as conversation between long-time friends, the playlist a deft blend of rock both classic (Bruce Springsteen) and cult (Jonathan Richman), and the entire night the very essence of what Kley and I people hope every meal out to be.

Cross a bridge? We’d have been no less pleased if we’d crossed an ocean.

In Vacanza Pastificio
1427 Crown St., North Vancouver
236-330-9696 / Instagram: @invacanzapasta

Sons of Vancouver
1431 Crown St., North Vancouver
778-340-5388 / Instagram: @sonsofvancouver

(Photo: Kley Klemens)


Review: Caffé La Tana

Click here to see more photos
and click here to see our video!

By Michael White

It was roughly 90 minutes after walking into Caffé La Tana — when three plates of food had been delivered, and we’d drained our first cocktails and were making quick work of a bottle of wine we had no intention of ordering until the spirit of the evening swept us up — that Kley and I exchanged an incredulous glance that essentially said, “Is this happening?”

Because what was happening was nothing less than a convincing approximation of life as we vaguely remember it from almost two years ago, but without the reckless disregard for public health such a statement might imply. It was dreamlike and magical and slightly disorienting — much like almost every aspect of our meal.

When we first visited earlier this year, largely to investigate the Italian-style donuts Kley had seen online (and which didn’t disappoint), Caffé La Tana’s dine-in service was suspended, as it was everywhere else, and was operating solely as a grocery and take-out counter. This has always been part of its business model — the vintage shelves and refrigerated case inside the entrance have been stocked since day one with cheeses, condiments, dried pastas, imported canned seafood, and much more. And you can get, say, an excellent breakfast sandwich with prosciutto, a kale salad or a house-made pasta to go.

But last week, we opened the door onto a very different scene. It was essentially a civilized party in full swing — the bustling Italian café its owners had always intended this space to be — for which the price of admission was providing ID and proof of vaccination. While servers were masked, as were patrons when they stepped away from their responsibly-distanced table, we otherwise felt as if we’d somehow time-travelled backward to the innocent, happy-go-lucky heyday of February 2020.

Every table had been claimed (there aren’t many), but we were happy to graze and gulp around the edge of a large communal standing table — in fact, when seats did become available, we elected to stay where we were. (Similar to Mount Pleasant’s Como Taperia, Caffé La Tana encourages a Eurocentric casualness we’d love to see more North American eateries adopt.)

From the compact but diverse evening menu, we chose a meltingly tender Albacore tuna crudo (pictured above), simply yet impeccably dressed with lemon, basil oil and flecks of Calabrian chili; and a basket of ingenious Cacio e Pepe fritti (the invention of chef Phil Scarfone), in which the classic cheese-and-pepper pasta is battered and fried like arancini.

Co-owner Paul Grunberg — a familiar sight from sister restaurants Savio Volpe and Pepino’s Spaghetti House — implored us to order an off-menu special that would “knock [our] fucking socks off”: a beef tartare atop which he shaved a possibly immoral amount of black truffle. And it was at this point that the night tipped over into a sort of benign surreality. The intense deliciousness of everything we were putting into our mouths, combined with an atmosphere borne of profound gratitude that this sort of gathering together is possible again (which led us and our fellow diners to talk to one another as if we were all long-lost friends), seemed to envelop the room in a glow of contentment so total, we were reluctant to ask for the cheque for fear of breaking the spell.

Fortunately, there was still to come a daily pasta special (striped ravioli with shrimp, confit garlic and a lemon-butter sauce — as good as it sounds), a more-chocolate-than-chocolate Torta Tenerina with Amarena cherries and mint, and a pair of utterly transporting grappas we tried at the urging of chef Vish Vaishnav. In total, it was the sort of experience for which you become nostalgic while it’s still happening.

Outside on Commercial Drive and in the wider world, life was up to its usual nonsense: all manner of heartbreaks and infuriations and petty grievances and people who won’t compromise their “freedom” for the greater good and just get the fucking shot already. But those things weren’t welcome inside Caffé La Tana, and it was as good as a vacation at a fraction of the cost and effort.

Caffé La Tana
635 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
604-428-5462 / Instagram: @caffelatana

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

Italian, Pizza

Review: Anthem Pizza

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

Is pizza something to be taken seriously? You may not think so, and fair enough.

Pizza, after all, is one of the most democratic, easily accessible foodstuffs we have. Whether you have billions of dollars to your name or are one lapsed paycheque from eviction, you probably have the means to acquire some. Not even “expensive” pizza is expensive in the grand scheme. (I don’t count the sort of three- and four-figure stunt pies that come bedecked with gold leaf or a forest’s worth of black truffle. Those exist only for bragging rights, not the pleasure of eating.) What could be serious about something available to everyone, virtually everywhere? Pizza is so lacking in seriousness that Pizza Hut exists — the physical manifestation of a joke, albeit a cruel one. (And before you accuse me of snobbery, know that I’m a Domino’s apologist.)

And yet…. If pizza isn’t serious, consider how you feel when you take a bite of disappointing pizza. The heartbreak. The indignation! The betrayal! How could so ostensibly reliable a comfort breaks its promise? It doesn’t matter where you are or how much you paid — a large $12 delivery pie, ordered in a drunken haze at half past midnight, owes itself to you to be delicious because this is pizza’s one job. Pizza is serious, you see, because we love it like few other things, and love is serious. Vegans love pizza so much they’ve bent over backward to reengineer it to keep it in their lives. (Acknowledge yourselves, Virtuous Pie.) Pizza is so serious a non-profit association exists in Italy solely to define and uphold the hyper-specific traditions of Neapolitan pizza-making. (Vancouver’s own Nicli Antica Pizzeria and Via Tevere, and Cotto, in both North Burnaby and Surrey, meet their criteria. Prior to 10 years ago, no Greater Vancouver pizzerias did.)

Walking a tightrope between serious and its polar opposite is Anthem Pizza, which launched not long ago, in the middle of November. There is no storefront; instead, takeout and delivery are conducted from the kitchens of The Five Point and Park Drive, two of Anthem owner Matt Thompson’s other establishments. (His burgeoning empire also includes Alphabet City and The Cannibal Café.)

Anthem arrives wrapped in a three-pronged concept so novel, amusing and kind-hearted, it threatens to eclipse their food. Prong one: In keeping with The Cannibal Café’s defining rock ’n’ roll aesthetic (it’s named after a song by Canadian punk trailblazers SNFU, and the walls are papered with vintage gig flyers), each of Anthem’s 14-inch pies is a tribute — in name, if not in spirit — to a band, album or song. Peruse the menu and find nods to Iggy Pop (the “Blah Blah Blah”; Alfredo sauce, mozzarella, fior di latte, Grana Padano, provolone, and gorgonzola), Beastie Boys (the “Sabotage”; mozzarella, chorizo, pepperoni, roasted chicken, and prosciutto) and the Clash (the “Stay Free”; tomato sauce and mozzarella). How a vegetarian pie came to be named after Suicidal Tendencies’ hardcore perennial “Institutionalized” presumably involved a late-night drinking game and a droll sense of humour.

Prong two: Partial proceeds from every pizza go to charitable causes, which rotate every three months. (At the time of this writing, the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation and the musician-focused Unison Benevolent Fund are the beneficiaries.) Prong three: Every pizza box wears a pasted-on graphic created by a local artist; those artworks are available as posters and T-shirts from Anthem’s online shop, where proceeds also go to charity.

Fortunately, Anthem’s wares aren’t a mere afterthought to clever marketing. Their pizzas aren’t about to unseat the likes of Via Tevere or Pizzeria Farina from the mountaintop where they so long ago planted their flags, but they aren’t trying to. These are populist pizzas — better than they have to be and more than good enough. You won’t find the seductive charred blisters of a wood-fired oven, nor a sauce made with the unmistakable tang of San Marzano tomatoes. What you will find is a lovely, appropriately uncomplicated Margherita pie (named after Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” because why not), topped with good-quality fior di latte and fresh basil leaves; and the David Bowie-acknowledging “Hunky Dory,” essentially a hifalutin interpretation of the always-controversial Hawaiian pizza, elevated by the addition of banana pepper, mildly funky prosciutto, and a bright pineapple jam that isn’t as cloyingly sweet as the Del Monte chunks typically used for this purpose. (Kley, incidentally, lost his mind over this one.)

Anthem also offers a variety of wings — the very same that have accompanied so many pitchers of beer at The Five Point (I recommend the Black Dragon flavour, basted with a mix of soy and Sriracha; $14) — and a pair of salads ($14 each), one of which earns extra points for being named J.J. Kale. Frankly, J.J. Cale isn’t the least bit punk rock, but then neither is salad.

Anthem’s pizzas currently cost $18 to $24 each, which is notably more than you would pay for some of the city’s most revered pies. But in the comfort of your home, with or without your bubble, and alongside a sympathetic adult libation (we murdered a bottle of this bargain Okanagan red blend), these pizzas are very easy to love. And all the more for the good they seek to inject back into the community. In times like these, could such a goal be any more serious?

Anthem Pizza
Take-out only at 3124 Main St.
and 1815 Commercial Dr., 3–10pm
604-425-1129 / Instagram: @anthempizza
Delivery platforms: DoorDash, Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats

(Photo: Kley Klemens)