Hicks Weekly Dish: Great kitchen, staff and space BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED EDMONTON SUN: TUESDAY, JUNE 20, 2017
10310-45 Avenue (corner of Gateway Boulevard and 45 Avenue)
Mon. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Tues. to Thurs. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Dinner for two, excluding tip and beverages: basic, $40; loaded, $70
Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns
It’s a brave move, to open a new mid-to-higher level Italian restaurant in a city where about half the top restaurants, it would seem, are Italian.
Especially since Vaticano Cucina’s principal owners, brothers Joe and Riccardo Francese, are new to the hospitality business.
Especially since Vaticano Cucina executive chef Dione Harwood’s reputation is just starting to grow.
But good on the brothers: For a restaurant with no known pedigree, Vaticano Cucina is a credible, comfortable and modern dining experience. Comfortably parked in with the Sorrentino’s restaurants, Vaticano is not trying to compete with the likes of Corso 32, Cibo, the fine-dining side of VIVO or Violino. But it is far more interesting and lively than most pasta palaces.
The south-side location is in the former stand-alone Koutouki Taverna building that greeted visitors heading into town on Gateway Boulevard just north of Whitemud Drive.
The premise has been completely re-fitted – gone are the grape trestles, the village tile floors and Greek music, replaced by a sleek, modern and spacious open-kitchen look. The central art work is above you. The Vatican Sistine Chapel’s most famous paintings are reproduced on Vaticano’s ceiling.
The staff is friendly and welcoming – making up for minor faux pas with sincere apologies. It was our waiter’s first day on the job and he did very well.
The food is delicious.
It’s a good mix of the familiar and the inventive – all fresh, clean and presented with attention to detail.
For the I-know-what-I-like crowd are some classic Neapolitan pizzas fresh out of a fancy wood-fired pizza oven, plus inventive in-house toppings — onion jam, ricotta, corn and lemon for example.
Each pizza is given the name of a saint. Our “St. Teresa” saw prosciutto, fontina cheese, arugula greens and anchovy vinaigrette loaded on a delicious thin crust coming straight from fiery pizza oven to table.
The pastas and insalata (salads) are interesting but it’s the antipasti (small plates) that catch the eye with items such as root vegetable carpaccio, arancini (rice balls), polenta and radicchio bundles.
Once upon a time “carpaccio” referred to very thin, cured-not-cooked slices of high-end beef, artfully arranged in fine olive oils. Now it’s fair game to call any thin-sliced olive-oil soaked dish a carpaccio. This one, with grilled, cooled, thin-sliced squash, beet and celeriac was drizzled with anchovy vinaigrette, resulting in a refreshing and unusual winner.
The squash-ball sized trio of arancini (deep-fried rice balls stuffed with Bolognese, mozzarella and mushroom sauces) arrived with sizzling crispness on the outside, rich and warm risotto rice amidships, then a burst of sauce flavour from their cores.
Pastas with centres of pureed butternut squash in caramelized burnt-butter sauce are now common, but Vaticano’s makes its bite-size caramelle pasta into things of sweet + savoury beauty.
Equally a must-try is the insalata Caprese – a whole, peeled, deliciously sweet and smoked San Marzano tomato, stuffed with sinfully tasty bocconcini cheese mixed with pesto and sprinkled with balsamic marinated caviar. This is something special indeed.
Truly, there’s little to criticize in this cucina. The dishes were hot, full of interesting flavour and texture. Nothing disappointed, most delighted – including an in-house tiramisu over which was fierce competition for the last few morsels. The service was almost too fast – the table was weighed down with multiple dishes within 15 minutes of ordering.
We stayed away from the four main dishes — as so many diners do these days. Sharing the pizza starter, one pasta dish, several salads, two antipasti and two desserts left us full but not bloated. Five of us ate well (excluding wine) for $110. The wine selection is decent – a bottle of Sartori pinot grigio ($45) was an excellent summer white.
Vaticano Cucina is clattery and noisy. Polished cement floors may look classy, but as the restaurant filled, sounds were amplified to the point where one had to speak LOUDLY to be heard at one’s own table.
Vaticano Cucina will be a success – the kitchen is great, the space inviting, the staff friendly and hard-working. It has that illusive quality of being appealing to all – from big families, to kid-friendly, to couples seeking a romantic night out – with a menu that will take many visits to fully explore.