Story by Adrian Brijbassi
VANCOUVER — Vancouver already is home to Canada’s best Indian restaurant (Vij’s), probably its top sushi experience (Tojo’s), unmatched Chinese fusion (Bao-Bei) and some of the finest seafood restaurants in the country. And you just might be able to add best pizzeria to the roster of greats.
Nicli Antica Pizzeria opened six months ago and the initial response was so strong the restaurant once ran out of dough to meet the demand, wine director and assistant general manager Matthew Morgenstern told me last week.
When a contact strongly suggested I try the new pizza place in Gastown, I expected to walk into a New York-style parlour with an oven burning in front of me and a mustachioed guy in a checkered apron waiting to take my order for a slice. Gastown has some Brooklyn edginess to it, of course, and Nicli’s location at 62 Cordova Street East puts it just a block and a half northwest of the notoriously drug-riddled Main & Hastings intersection. So walking into an establishment with pristine walls and tables gleaming white and lit with candles may make you wonder for a moment if you’re tripping out too.
For one thing, Vancouver just doesn’t do pizza well. Everyone from eastern Canada has complained about the poor choices available when they live or visit here. Second, if this city were to have a pizzeria that offers a fine-dining experience, you’d think it would be found in Yaletown, among the $15 martinis and $5 lattes and $200 jeans. Instead, former St. Thomas, Ontario resident Bill McCaig opted to open his authentic Neapolitan pizza place in a former RCMP riding stables, with a vaulted ceiling and spacious main hall on a downtrodden stretch of the city.
“It was kind of a scary proposition,” he says of deciding on the address. “I had some second thoughts that people would come and then they did.”
Taste for yourself and you’ll know why. The thin-crust pies are made in a wood-fired Gianni Acunto oven imported from Italy and specifically designed for pizza. It heats up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, which creates the delicate texture of the crust. The sauce on the Capricciosa pie ($20) was so deliciously sweet it offered an instant realization of what pizza should taste like.
“A lot of people told me why don’t you use a gas oven? But if it’s not a wood-fired oven it’s not authentic Neapolitan pizza and the whole point of this is to make it authentic,” McCaig told me, adding that he had to go through some hurdles to get Vancouver politicians to approve the oven for use. “You can use all the same ingredients and make a pizza that’s kind of like mine, but without the oven it’s not going to be the same.”
McCaig went into the culinary business after retiring from the waste-management industry in the early 2000s. He studied French cooking and visited Naples, where he had pizza “that was so much better than anything I had ever had.” He worked in Calgary restaurants before coming to Vancouver and taking notice of the awful state of pizza making in the city.
“Over my time in Calgary I realized the low-end cuisine doesn’t really appeal. The mid-range you can be busy if you market it right. In the high-end if you do it right, you’ll be busy every night. But with fine cuisine, not everyone has big dollars to go dine out on a regular basis. And that’s where pizza comes in,” he says. “It’s a moderately priced meal and there’s big volume in it. And I noticed an absolute absence in Vancouver.”
He took a year to settle on the location, which he says “looked like a burnt-out shell” when he purchased it. Nicli, which is the maiden name of McCaig’s mother, employs about 25 Vancouverites and turns out dozens of pies a day. The prices range from $9 for a Marinara to $20 for the Capricciosa. The pies are 30 centimetres in diameter, making them large enough to cut into four good-sized slices. It’s great for sharing; eating one by yourself is doable but might be a task depending on your appetite. The beer and wine list are both solid, and the service swift and sharp.
“I’ve never had pizza like this,” diner and life-long Vancouverite Herman Chor said. “Vancouver is not known for its pizza and this is so good.”
The recipes are hundreds of years old, says McCaig. “The freshness and the quality of the crust are what makes a Neapolitan pizza so much better than anything else available,” he points out. “What is mine is more the passion and desire to do it right. I can’t claim the recipes, nor can anyone else.”
What Nicli may one day boast, though, is a role in the completed revitalization of a stretch of urban Canada that desperately needs better times. Morgenstern says he and the staff have had to get used to dealing with the drug users and mentally ill citizens who populate the neighbourhood. “Sometimes you’ll see them with their needles right outside,” he says, adding that he’s had to ask them to leave. “You’re never going to get rid of that element. It’s part of Gastown, everyone knows it. What the independent restaurants are doing is changing the vibe, making things exciting.”
McCaig adds that he had some trepidation about the location but it helped that other restaurants were moving into the area. “People were kind of worried and for a short period of time I had a bit of a worry about it too. Honestly, this is how areas of a city get reborn,” he says. “Restaurateurs find a place with decent value in a city, so they purchase in there or get rent in there and build a nice restaurant. It’s not just one person, I’m just the latest who’s moved into Gastown because of its attractive rents and values compared to rest of the city.”
Nicli is one of a handful of outstanding restaurants that have opened in Vancouver in the past year. Here are notes on some of the others:
Bao-Bei – Chef Joel Watanabe has created a buzz with his inventive Chinese dishes, served in a gorgeous room that evokes visions of a classic Chinatown from the ’20s or ’30s. The food is superb, with three share plates being plenty for two people, and comes at reasonable prices. The fried rice of the day is $14 and comes in a large bowl. The Mantou, which is essentially a serving of three braised beef shortrib sliders on steamed buns, is a must. 163 Keefer Street, 604 688 0876.
L’Abattoir — The best food, cocktail and dining experience north of Vij’s, L’Abattoir deserves a lot of recognition for its innovative cuisine. Chef Lee Cooper’s flavours are original and Shaun Layton’s cocktails are worth a stop at the bar. The Warm Steelhead and Potato Salad ($15) is a dish not to be passed up. Read more here. 217 Carrall Street, 604 568 1701.
Ensemble — The most talked about restaurant in Vancouver, Ensemble is headed by Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay. He’s brought much of the staff over from Lumiere, which closed earlier in the year, and is winning lots of praise from around Vancouver. Like L’Abattoir, the food is French-influenced, creative cuisine and there’s a vibrant bar scene. The Potato Gnocchi ($12) and the Herb Risotto ($9, or $16 with shrimp, or $19 with lobster) are standouts on the menu. Read more here. 850 Thurlow Street, 604 569 1770.
Hawksworth — Chef David Hawksworth branched out from West and has set up shop in the palatial Rosewood Hotel Georgia, located across from the Vancouver Art Gallery. It’s only been open a month. And I didn’t try it on this trip. 801 West Georgia Street, 604 673 7000.
Mobile food trucks – They created a sensation last year when they rolled into Vancouver, looking to replicate the popularity their brethren enjoy in San Francisco. The best of the ones I walked up to was TacoFino, which serves a $4.50 fish taco that’s fantastic value. Overall, though, many of these mobile trucks serve food that’s similar to what you’d find in a shopping mall food court. Nothing wrong with that (except when you find hair in your fried salmon like I did at Roaming Dragon); however, when the novelty wears off, a number of vendors may have trouble staying on four wheels.