Carbs may have become one of the most villainized foods in modern history, but for many people there’s nothing more indulgent and comforting than pasta: maybe served simply, shells tossed with butter and cheese, or perhaps in a more celebratory dish, like linguine with fresh mussels, plump prawns, and white wine.
If there’s one thing Lucais Syme loves eating and cooking, it’s pasta. Local food lovers who follow chefs will know his name from the many Italian restaurants he has been part of in one way or another since he moved to Vancouver from Edmonton in 2003 to study at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts: Adesso Bistro (now closed), La Buca, La Quercia, and La Pentola, to name a few.
In 2014, he opened Cinara, an Italian-inspired eatery downtown, with his wife and fellow chef, Gillian Book. For proof of just how well received this restaurant has been, consider that Tacofino regional executive chef Stefan Hartmann (formerly of Bauhaus) and Donnelly Group director of culinary development Chris Stewart (formerly with Hawksworth) were both spotted dining there recently, and Andrea Carlson, executive chef/owner of Burdock & Co. (formerly of Bishop’s), held a holiday staff party there. When some of the top chefs in the city pick a place to dine during their rare downtime, it’s a testament to what’s coming out of the kitchen.
Whether or not Vancouverites recognize Syme’s name, they will want to know about his latest venture: a casual Italian spot on Main at 32nd Avenue.
Autostrada Osteria takes its name from the Italian word for “highway”. Syme runs it with his business partner, Dustin Dockendorf, whose résumé includes positions at Joey’s and the Beach House. It’s small (24 seats) and is sparsely decorated with a mural of a racing car (by Syme’s brother Jonathan). And it puts the spotlight on what Syme does best: simple but expertly executed share plates and pasta dishes, the kind of cuisine that’s served without fanfare all over Italy.
Syme, who also worked for a short while at Cioppino’s and later did a stage at the celebrated Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago, says he wants to bring a taste of unfussy but reliable Italian dining to Vancouver.
“I enjoy the whole Italian food philosophy: taking great ingredients and letting them shine in their most perfect state,” he tells the Straight by phone. “It’s my favourite kind of cooking and cuisine: doing pasta that’s made well with good ingredients but doing it casually. We saw a bit of a void there in Vancouver. We wanted a small, fun neighbourhood place, just like an osteria where people are caring about the ingredients and about their customers, a kind of mom-and-pop place.”
For now, there are seven pastas to choose from (stuffed pastas such as agnolotti are coming). There’s that classic cacio e pepe, consisting of cheese (here, Pecorino) and black pepper, with butter and snail-shell-like lumache noodles; it’s mac ’n’ cheese for grownups. Garganelli pasta is tube-shaped, like penne rigate; it’s enlivened with Pecorino, sweet fennel sausage, and bright peas. Rich duck-and-anchovy ragu, meanwhile, accompanies spaghetti. There’s risotto with apples and squash, too.
Highlights among the starters include whole white anchovies on toasted focaccia with radish, pickled cucumber, and herbed butter; the appetizer is borrowed from Cinara, where it has long been a customer fave. Another toast has delicate duck liver, aged balsamic vinegar, and cornichons.
Vitello tonnato—sliced veal with a thick tuna-and-caper sauce—can be found everywhere in the Boot, from Michelin-starred restaurants to nondescript eateries; here in East Van, it’s best when you order it with a side of soft, salty focaccia.
Meatballs in tomato sauce; a beet salad with walnuts, Gorgonzola, and apples; and a local-seafood Bibb lettuce salad with preserved lemons help round out the offerings.
Several variations on Negroni (including a sparkling version with Prosecco) lead the to-the-point drinks list. Because the wines will be changing regularly, they are listed not by label but by description, in layman’s terms such as “aromatic, touch of sweet” for a white and “elegant, bright Piedmontese” among the reds. Wines are poured straight from the bottle, bringing home that family-style feel.
Appetizers range from $5 to $17, while mains run from $18 to $21. With any luck, this latest addition to the city’s list of casual Italian-dining restaurants will not be this team’s last.