Vancouver’s Best Pasta

April 1, 2009

When it comes to pasta,” says Andrey Durbach, “most people have it all wrong.” We’re sitting on one of the banquettes at Parkside, nursing sturdy glasses of Primitivo, a few weeks before this West End room will reopen as the new incarnation of La Buca, his bustling little pasta-forward room at 24th and MacDonald. Durbach has the countenance—and sometimes the mood—of a grizzly bear woken early from hibernation, but he’s an acute observer of Vancouver’s dining proclivities and knows that, in the current economic climate, value is key. La Buca has shown him that a congenial room featuring great pasta dishes at smart prices can thrive. I won’t soon forget La Buca’s house-made fettuccine boscaiola with brandy, pancetta, and wild mushrooms. But what’s this about people not getting it?

“North Americans treat pasta as a vehicle for consuming sauce. They think alfredo is the package and the fettuccine is merely the UPS truck. But great pasta is about the noodle.” He slaps the table. “The noodle is everything. You know where I learned that? Japan.”

Durbach, 41, accepted a position in a suburban Tokyo noodle bar in 1991 after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, in New York. “The Japanese have a huge noodle culture,” he explains. “Sure, it’s not linguine—it’s ramen and udon and soba. But they’re just as passionate about it as the Italians. I lived there for a year, and I’d watch people in noodle bars gobble up ramen and leave the broth. It didn’t interest them. It was only there to keep the noodles warm. Every nation with a strong noodle culture gets it except North Americans: when your noodles are gone, so should the sauce be. Here, the best part is obscured by sauce. The focus is backward.

“Every type of pasta has its own identity, its own language. And if you pay attention, the noodle will tell you how to prepare it. It’s like writing music—if you understand the melody, the lyrics will write themselves. Pasta is the same.” He leaps up and comes back with two types of dry pasta.

“This is an artisanal linguine,” he says, “extruded smooth to allow oils to cling to it. This is for aglio olio. And this”—he points to a large cylindrical noodle—“is paccheri. When you cook it, it collapses on itself, like big floppy rigatoni. It needs a chunky tomato ragout with eggplant or Italian sausage to get inside the pasta to hold it up. But paccheri aglio olio? Never.”

So what is it people have wrong? “People always want more,” says Durbach. “More destroys pasta. They see cheese and pepper and dried chili flakes as added value. It isn’t. I’ll let you in on a little secret.” He leans forward. “When a chef wants to make pasta taste better, he doesn’t add ingredients. He takes them away.”

I didn’t expect a lecture on minimalism and udon in my search for the perfect bowl of pasta; time to head back to basics, to a place where people talk passionately with their hands, eat enough to sustain a small country, and stop everything, including wedding vows, when AC Milan is playing—La Piazza Dario at the Italian Cultural Centre. Chef Claudio Ranallo, 50, is Vancouver’s reigning pasta consigliere, having spent more time cooking pasta than some chefs have been alive. His clientele includes a who’s who of first-generation Italian-Canadians, diners who know all about the real thing.

“Pasta is Italian soul food,” Ranallo tells me. I’ve found him, of course, in the kitchen—an intense man of few words, he does his best talking with a saucepan and a well-stocked larder. He concurs with Durbach: “The best dishes are the simplest. Why cover up good ingredients? My pomodoro has four ingredients, but you taste every one of them. Pasta is the most honest food you can cook—there’s nowhere to hide your mistakes.” Ranallo was raised in the village of Ateleta in Abruzzo and his cuisine—dishes like house-made cannelloni alla romana stuffed with veal and spinach leaf, and his signature spaghetti alla Claudio with sun-dried tomatoes and sautéed garlic—reflects that regional influence.

Ah, and his gnocchi! They may be the best around, as firm and supple as pillows. He recalls the chef he trained under in the Piedmontese resort village of Stressa who’d hurl potatoes at young Claudio if the gnocchi weren’t quite right. Those lessons have not been forgotten. “The secret is not to overhandle them. It’s not pizza dough. The less you fuss with them the better. Your potatoes should be hot enough to scald your hands as you fold them into your dough. And you must work quickly—cold dough makes for gummy gnocchi. Roll them into little snakes, cut them the width of your nana’s finger, and plop them straight into the water.” He dresses his gnocchi simply—fresh tomatoes, basil, a touch of cream. They need nothing else.If Ranallo represents the old guard, then plucky British upstart Neil Taylor, at Cibo in the Moda Hotel on Seymour, should be his polar opposite, right? Not so. Despite the age difference and the lilting accent, this 28-year-old wunderkind from London’s famed River Café treats pasta with the same reverence. “Most of the pasta you eat simply isn’t very good,” he says with a shrug. “People don’t know how to handle it. I see people adding oil to their water or rinsing the noodles before adding the sauce. There’s a science to great pasta.”

The River Café was also the culinary proving ground for British celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, April Bloomfield, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Working with Bloomfield (who later earned a Michelin star for her Greenwich Village gastropub the Spotted Pig), Taylor became familiar with the fine art of pasta-making by preparing it from scratch for every service. He’s an alchemist when it comes to his dough, constantly tweaking flour/egg yolk/semolina ratios. He favours the Italian OO flour for its “fine grind that gives my pasta its silky texture,” and his recipe for the pasta depends on what sauce he will prepare it with—“I always add more semolina when cooking with crabmeat. It adds nice ‘bite’ to pasta.”

Taylor’s appreciation for exceptional olive oils came from the annual field trips he and his River Café cohorts would take to Tenuta di Capezzana near Florence for the Tuscan olive harvest. These bold viscous oils, known for their rich buttery texture, are also a favourite of Mario Batali. “We’d always go in November,” Taylor recalls, “when the first oils of the season were ready. We’d savour the colours, flavours, and aromas of the new oils compared to the year previous, then create pastas to highlight the new season’s oil.” He uses no fewer than three types of olive oil for a single dish. His deft touch manifests itself in ethereal stuffed pastas like sunchoke and mascarpone cannelloni with Umbrian black truffles, and house-made ravioli with pancetta and rainbow chard tossed in a supple sage butter.

Further exploring the cuisine of central Italy leads me to perhaps the city’s best-known pasta dish—spaghetti Quattro, from Kitsilano’s Quattro on Fourth. Tossed with tomatoes, chicken, chilies, and black beans, and finished with extra-virgin olive oil and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, this dish garnered instant praise when it was introduced in 1979 at owner Antonio Corsi’s original restaurant, Corsi Trattoria. It has had a rabid following ever since. A Roman recipe, it gets its inspiration from Corsi’s hometown, the seaside village of Maenza—the black beans are a North American update. It’s the only dish on their rotating menu of Italian heavyweights that they don’t dare remove.

Quattro’s executive chef, Brad Ellis, joins us after preparing a bacchanalian pasta feast—the remains of ravioli piedmontese stuffed with wild mushrooms and truffled mascarpone; penne with asparagus tips, fresh tomatoes, and white wine; and linguine with rock shrimp, sweet peas, and tarragon citrus gremolata are strewn across the dark cherry-wood table. When it comes to pasta, Ellis is one of the best. Don’t believe me? He’s cooked for the Corsi family for over eight years. And what’s pasta to an Italian restaurant? Antonio’s son, Patrick Corsi doesn’t pause: “It’s everything.”

“The only way to create great pasta,” insists Ellis, “is to immerse yourself in it. You must engage all your senses: sight, scent, touch, sound, and especially taste. Pasta is a game of inches. A pinch too much salt, an extra 10 seconds in the water, cooking your onions too long or your garlic not long enough can radically alter the end result. It’s not enough to follow a recipe; perfect pasta requires a certain feel.”

Ellis acquired that feel early, making pasta as a child in Montreal with his father, hanging it to dry over hockey sticks slung between two chairs. “There’s an adage that if you want to gauge a chef’s talent, you taste his soup. Not true,” Patrick says. “You taste his pasta. It’s the greatest litmus test of finesse, passion, and execution. You can get a great steak or piece of halibut in a hundred different restaurants in this city. But great pasta? Fewer than 10.”

One local foodie who has spent years in Italy told me some of the best pasta he’s ever eaten was at Cioppino’s. “It was the most extraordinary thing. Pino cooked the pasta in the sauce he served it in. No boiling water, no colander—nothing. I’d never seen anything like it.” Thus my search takes me to Pino Posteraro’s immaculate Yaletown kitchen. His pasta might be the most economical way to enjoy his genius (provided you avoid truffle season). It is about an hour before service, and his white-jacketed army is busy prepping for a full house. Chef leads me to his pasta station, his mise en place meticulously organized—every container labelled and dated with a short strip of masking tape. He grabs a large saucepan, cranks up the heat, and begins. He starts with two types of garlic (purée and confit), a little chili pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. “You must cook the garlic properly, otherwise it gives you indigestion.” He adds white wine, chicken stock, prawn jus, salt, and a splash more olive oil. (The servers have abandoned their polishing and are crowded around to watch. Even the cooks, traditionally jaded and unflappable, take notice.) The sauce splashes and bubbles as it comes to temperature. He grabs a fistful of dry, uncooked spaghetti, tosses it in, and covers it, savouring my confused look. “Bello, you don’t need to boil the pasta first,” he tells me. “Just wait.”

Posteraro was born in Lago, in the southern Italian region of Calabria. “To me, pasta is holy. I’ve eaten it every day of my life.” He never eats it in other restaurants; he’s too frequently disappointed. “There’s a lot more to great pasta than people realize. People treat it like it’s a bouillabaisse—they just toss all their ingredients in and hope for the best. Great pasta is more like a soufflé. The timing of your ingredients is everything.”

He gives the pasta a gentle stir. The sauce is reducing nicely, and the spaghetti is beginning to soften but is still firm. He adds Alaskan king crab leg meat, fresh basil, and black pepper, and covers it again. He points to the whole tomatoes. “This is where most people screw up,” he says. The staff lean in closer. “They add the tomatoes too soon. The acidity slows down the cooking, and the flavour gets lost. And never, ever remove the seeds. They contain all the nutrients.” He pats his belly for emphasis. “That’s why Mediterraneans are the healthiest people in the world.” He squeezes the tomatoes into the sauce and covers the pan again. He cooks effortlessly, maintaining an easy patter and never breaking eye contact while reaching for ingredients or adjusting temperatures.

After a few minutes, he removes the lid to reveal a delectable symbiosis. The pasta is cooked perfectly al dente, and has adopted a slightly pinkish hue from the sauce it has absorbed. The starches from the pasta saturate the sauce, making it richer, more textured. The heady aroma of wine and garlic perfumes the air. He fills three pasta bowls—one for me, one for him, one for the lurking servers (who fall on it like a pack of jackals). He chastises a waiter for using a spoon to twirl his pasta. “It’s served in a bowl for a reason,” he shouts. “Use the edge of the bowl to gather the noodles around your fork!” The sauce clings to the noodles; the crabmeat is firm and sweet; all the ingredients sing out in unison. “You see, bello? Pasta this good, I would even eat for dessert.”

From southern Italian cuisine in glitzy Yaletown, I travel up the boot for the northern Italian cuisine at Campagnolo in the gritty Main-and-Terminal neighbourhood. “Pasta is peasant food,” says chef Alvin Pillay. Bespectacled and with a studious manner, he looks like someone you might find strolling a university campus instead of captaining a busy professional kitchen. “Its history is rooted in poverty. Most of the classic recipes were born out of necessity, constructed from whatever ingredients were left behind or readily available.

“Take this Parmesan brodo.” Pillay lifts a saucepan lid, revealing an ochre broth redolent of thyme. “This sauce was born from stewing leftover Parmesan cheese rinds with some simple aromatics, and when you toss it with garganelle, it’s fabulous.” Pillay spent months touring Italy, absorbing local cuisine and learning regional specialties, first in Rome, then in Naples, before spending most of his time in the northern Piedmontese village of Verduno. It was there, working under famed chef Alessandra Buglioni, that he learned the northern-style cooking featured at Campagnolo (which is Italian slang for “country bumpkin”).

“The secret to great pasta,” adds owner/executive chef Rob Belcham, “is taking the freshest items you can find and then doing very little to them. That’s why we focus exclusively on the northern regions of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. In terms of produce, it’s the closest to what we have available here.

“What most people don’t realize is that you can’t reproduce Italian food outside Italy,” he continues. “It’s impossible—the cuisine is too regionally specific. But you can replicate the feeling, the pride and passion that you bring to your cooking. That’s what we try to do.” Their house-made taglierini tossed in a braised beef, pork belly, and basil ragout with grated pecorino is abundant proof that their passionate approach is working.

The mere mention of chef Gennaro Iorio’s lusty strozzapreti bolognese—tomato-and-meat ragout with coarse shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano—is enough to get my taste buds tingling. Co-owner and executive chef at La Terrazza, Iorio, 34, has been perfecting this dish since his mother taught him how to make it in his hometown of Trail, B.C. Annual family trips to Italy instilled in young Iorio a passion for pasta. “Nobody even stirs this sauce but me,” he states proudly. “The secret is consistency. You can’t have two bites that are different. Every single bite of this pasta must taste the same.”

Iorio starts by grinding his own blend of veal, pork, and AAA beef tenderloin. He adds finely diced garlic and a puréed mirepoix of carrot, onion, and celery. He then stirs it over an agonizingly low heat until every morsel of meat is wrapped in that flavourful mirepoix. “Gr at pasta takes time,” he says, handing me a hearty bowl of what will surely be his legacy. “You can’t take shortcuts.” He might have said more, but I was intently focused on the bolognese nestled inside and around the ridges of the curled strozzapreti.

ARGENTINIAN-BORN Julio Gonzalez-Perini is another chef who creates magic from childhood lessons. His family hails from the cold, mountainous region of Trentino-Alto Adige near the Alps, where simple, hearty food is a way of life. I vividly recall him preparing soul-satisfying veal and chicken cannelloni baked with Parmesan, milk, and light tomato sauce from his grandmother’s recipe at his former restaurant, Villa del Lupo. Since selling his restaurant three years ago, Gonzalez-Perini has been something of a culinary nomad, with stints at West Vancouver’s Beach House and Yaletown’s Scuié. I knew if I could find him, I’d also find spectacular pasta. He turned up in the unlikeliest of places—Federico’s Supper Club on Commercial Drive—and he didn’t disappoint. I just didn’t expect my quest for the perfect plate of pasta would lead me to a dance floor.

Perhaps the leader at imbuing fresh, local ingredients with equal parts tradition and his own sensibilities, Gonzalez-Perini has an innate ability to extract every ounce of flavour from simple components. House-made fettuccine with mint, marsala wine, and frizzled speck (a smoky, salty bacon from northern Italy) and rich, yolky taglierini with white and green asparagus, parsley, and extra-virgin olive oil have as much punch as Federico’s four-piece band.

I ask him where people go wrong cooking pasta at home. “Too much cream,” he says with conviction. “I understand people like cream, but it must be used sparingly. When it cools, it thickens, turning everything on the plate to cement. Take alfredo. A true alfredo sauce contains no cream. The noodles come right out of the pot and are simply tossed with butter and fresh Parmigiano. What you see everywhere, that’s not alfredo.

“Once you’ve had it done right, you’ll never go back.”

And so he prepares it. Flecks of parsley and cracked black pepper adorn pasta that drips butter and salty Reggiano with every mouthful. He’s right—I will never go back.

SIMPLE, FRESH ingredients and no excess garnish is clearly a key to great pasta. Again that lesson is driven home when I travel to the shoebox-sized kitchen of Point Grey’s La Quercia, helmed by Andrey Durbach protégés Adam Pegg and Lucais Syme (who has also worked for Posteraro). Here pasta is served with just enough sauce to gently caress silky ribbons and stuffed pillows. “The texture of the pasta is the experience, not how many colours we can cram on the plate,” says Syme. Speaking of colour, what about flavoured pastas, like the green spinach fettuccine I so often see at the supermarket? Syme answers my question with a question: “Have you ever had a spinach pasta that actually tasted like spinach? It’s so much puffery. No flavour, no nutrients—a waste of good pasta. The rare exception is squid ink. It turns your pasta jet black and tastes like the ocean. It’s very effective.”

The menu at La Quercia includes staples like carbonara, amatricana, and vongole. But it’s 2009 and we’re in Vancouver. Why continue to cook classic pasta? “We don’t do it out of tradition or nostalgia. These dishes are classics because they work. You can’t fight centuries of evolution.”

Chef Pegg takes the Darwinian argument a step further—hundreds of distinct dishes, he says, have evolved from a single staple. “We’re talking about a country that stretches from Africa to the Swiss Alps. Italy is a nation of regions—a patchwork of totally distinct cultures. Households within villages argue vehemently that their way is the only way.” And as I travelled from room to room across the city, experiencing different regional flavours in every bowl and engaging chefs in intense discussions about why their pasta reigns supreme, I could only say, “Grazie, Italia!” for such culinary diversity.

For a video of Pino Posteraro demonstrating how to cook pasta without water, click here.

Read about 5 more great pasta spots here.

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