The words Main Street can mean different things to Vancouverites. It can mean the blocks of trendy cafes and hip restaurants extending North from West Broadway. It can mean Chinatown and the rough and tumble area at the intersection of Hastings Street. Or it can mean somewhere in between; underdeveloped lower Main, steps away from Pacific Central bus and train station, and a stone’s throw from the downtown core. The latter is the setting of one of Vancouver’s newest restaurants, a casual Italian eatery run by the owners of Fuel. No matter how down-market the neighborhood, a hip new restaurant will attract diners. In 2008 Food & Wine magazine included Vancouver in its top ten list of restaurant cities in the world. If you build it, they will come. At least at first.
Stepping into the restaurant, I’m struck by the contrast of the warm, inviting atmosphere to the dingy cold outside. A friendly hostess approaches me immediately and offers to take my coat, which I happily part with. Although the decor is modern and streamlined, with concrete walls and sleek Scandinavian style furniture, the place still has a cozy feel to it, due in part to the cork floor and the original old growth fir beams.
Tim Pittman, one of the owners, comes over to our group to welcome us and explains that Campagnolo’s interpretation of Italian dining encourages the sharing of several courses around the table. This is reflected in the menu, which offers a wide variety of antipasti, first and second courses, as well as pizza and side dishes. This sounds good to us, and we start with an appetizer of seared albacore tuna studded with salt-roasted onions and chives, served on a soft mound of cannellini beans. The tuna has a clean, mellow flavor, as if it has just been caught, prepared, and brought to our table with a minimum of fanfare. We follow with an order of chick peas with arugula and mint. The chick peas are fried; crunchy but incredibly light in texture, like popcorn, slightly spiced and without a trace of oil. For a moment I think they’re roasted. So far, the chick peas are my favourite offering of the evening.
Before diving into our main courses, we try a sampling of Chef Robert Belcham’s salumi and cured meats paired with a basket of fresh crostini. The pate di campagna is a country pate, slightly smoked and mild. A little too mild. The taste is not unlike that of cooked ham and lacks the intensity I have come to expect in a pate. The cured venison sausage, however, has a good balance of smoke and garlic, allowing the true flavor of the meat to shine through without tasting gamy.
Next come our pastas. In true Italian style, these dishes are served as a first course, with just enough on the plate to satisfy. We start with the tagliarini in a pork and beef ragu with basil and pecorino, followed by egg noodles with sausage, walnuts, and dandelion greens. Also in true Italian style, both of these pasta dishes are lightly sauced. To Italians, the delicate flavour of a pasta is just as important as the sauce. We North Americans, however, consider pasta a neutral canvas which allows the sauce to take center stage; thus, I find them a little on the bland side.
We decide to share a couple pizzas amongst us. We start with a pizza bianca topped with garlic, olive oil, and a generous shaving of grana padano cheese. What makes a great pizza is pretty subjective but I find the crust a little too chewy for my taste. I like that it’s thin and not loaded down with heavy toppings. My favourite is the credenza, a simple pizza of anchovy, olive, and pickled leeks.
Finally we finish with dessert. Continuing in the spirit of sharing, we decide to sample a Nutella tart and an olive oil cake. The tart pastry has a delicate, flaky texture; the filling is a deep, dark chocolate underscored with hints of hazelnut and Frangelico. Oil cakes can be heavy, with a strong flavor, but this one is light yet rich at the same time, balanced by a garnish of spice-roasted pears and cinnamon cream. It’s the perfect finale to our delightfully varied meal. When I’m ready to go the owner quickly produces my coat. A nice conclusion to an evening of attentive yet unobtrusive service.
Campagolo is open for lunch as well as dinner and also boasts a 25-seat wine bar with a wide selection of wines and beer. With many wine choices under the eight dollar mark and food prices that are reasonable for the quality, Campagnolo provides a much-needed venue for those living in or visiting the lower Main Street neighborhood.
Images courtesy of Microsoft Office