When in Vancouver, shop as the Italians do

Italian-born Vancouver chefs swear by their favourite sources for Parmigiano Reggiano, olive oil, porcini, and tomatoes, per favore

Thirty-one years ago, Beatrice Carlani visited Vancouver, needing a getaway from hometown Perugia. The stigma of being newly divorced and a workingwoman in a small Italian town—it was a different era—was wearing. Carlani loved Vancouver, stayed, and quickly discovered that cooking Italian was "a nice way to make friends". (Those friendships blossomed into a cooking club that is still going strong.) She missed the white truffles that grew in her yard in Perugia and the "wonderful" porcini mushrooms, but there isn't much that she can't buy here.

"At Cioffi's [Meat Market & Deli] you can find anything that you can get in Milan," Carlani says, and the butcher cuts meat "the Italian way". Veal is Italian-style, from older animals; the meat is red and very tender and has more flavour. Carlani swears by Vancouver-made Scardillo ricotta, widely available at most Italian markets. "It's fresh, fine, and creamy," she says. Porcini? She buys large bags of dried Italian porcini, keeps them in the freezer, and reconstitutes them as needed for cooking.

Italian-born Vancouver chefs mostly agree with Carlani: you can get everything here. They deal with select wholesalers, small provisioners, and speciality organic growers, and they shop local Italian markets.

Pino Posteraro, chef-owner of top-rated Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca, who emigrated from Calabria 11 years ago, is exacting about ingredients (check out the meat-aging fridge in Enoteca) and happily shares sources. A. Bosa Foods & Co., both the original location at 562 Victoria Drive and the new one at 1465 Kootenay Street, are tops for Italissimo organic tomatoes, specialty pastas, buffalo mozzarella, and Parmigiano Reggiano, while La Grotta del Formaggio (1791 Commercial Drive) on the Drive is a treasure trove of fine olive oils and organic pastas. Columbus Meat Market (1655 Renfrew Street) supplies lamb and goat, and Cioffi's (4156 East Hastings Street, Burnaby) has met his previous supplier's price for AAA beef. (We found it on sale at $15.99 per pound.)

"You made me homesick," responds chef Lela Selmo, co-owner of La Cucina del Diavolo ("The Devil's Kitchen", 1701 Powell Street). Although Selmo has been in Vancouver for five years, there is much she misses about Milan, especially white Venetian polenta, Sicilian lemons, Tuscan wild-boar sausages, raw-milk buffalo mozzarella, and "green-leaf veggies—there's much more than rapini". But she can get bresaola (extra-lean cured beef) at Cioffi's ($3.99 per 100 grams). La Grotta del Fromagio is a favourite spot for cheese, especially Taleggio, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Fontina Valdostana. She buys Fabbri syrups ($10.99 for 750 millilitres) at Bosa—hazelnut to flavour coffee and mint for "very refreshing" milk or soymilk in the summer. Amarene (wild cherries in syrup) to top gelato comes in giftable blue-and-white ceramic jars ($14.99 for 600 grams), and elegantly packaged porcini-mushroom sauce ($6.99 for 180 grams) is great in risotto.

At the new Bosa market, you'll also find a well-stocked butcher and an enormous deli counter filled with olives, cheeses, cured meats, and more. A window behind the deli affords views into the Parmigiano Reggiano aging room, where up to 200 wheels of cheese (each weighs about 38 kilos) are racked like wine barrels.

Mille grazie to La Terrazza chef Gennaro Iorio for tipping me to Renzullo Food Market at 1370 Nanaimo Street. Iorio shops there for home and for the restaurant. "It's owner-operated, a real neighbourhood deli/grocery, my one-stop-shopping place. I go here first, then to other shops if I don't find it here," says Iorio, who recommends the "house" brand San Remo tomatoes, marinated vegetables, high-quality olive oils including excellent Sasso Olive Oil, specialty balsamic vinegars, and De Cecco pastas. The shop hasn't changed much since Carmelo Renzullo opened in 1964; original customers drop in and school kids still come by for mortadella subs. (Foot longs are $3.50.) Daughter Mirella took over from her father in 2000; he retired last Christmas. Check out the well-stocked olive and antipasti cart that predates those in conventional supermarkets. The store, sporting original wooden floors, shelving, old food adverts, Carmelo's soccer photos, and the original yellow sign, is a calming step back in time.

Don't miss landmark Tosi Italian Food Imports at 624 Main Street. One of Chinatown's oldest family-run businesses is virtually unchanged from its 1906 origins. Started by Piedmonte-born Peter Tosi, who worked until he passed away at 89, it's currently operated by son Angelo, an energetic 75-year-old. Best buys: Tiger and Saccro olive oils, organic Parmesan, canned tomatoes, and vegetable seeds.

Buon appetito.