Raised by her Italian mom in a co-op in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Maya Sciarretta remembers having to pick up hard-to-find items from the local grocery store when she was little. It was during those early years that she developed a love of cooking and an inventive streak, two qualities that helped her realize her dream of opening an Italian eatery in the neighbourhood she still calls home.
“I learned a lot by being Italian living in Chinatown,” Sciarretta says during an interview at Pazzo Chow (620 Quebec Street). “I was sent out to buy romaine. You couldn’t buy romaine in Chinatown when I was a kid. You’d have to figure out other things: what could you use instead?
“What we do at Pazzo Chow is Italian fundamentals, very simple food but creative mixes of things,” she says. “We feed people food that we’re excited about and that’s really healthy. It’s like having my kids come home for lunch.”
Although Vancouver landmark Tosi Italian Food Import Co., which opened its doors in 1906, is up for sale in that area, Italian food is becoming easier to find in the historic neighbourhood.
Sciarretta, who got her start in the food industry by making her Sugo line of pasta sauces (with names like Puttanesca “Whore Style” and Arrabbiata “Angry Style”) and selling them at local markets, operates the teeny-tiny spot with Ashley Watson, who is behind the artisanal ice-cream company Brown Paper Packages (well known for its ice-cream sandwiches).
In addition to selling those products, the two make three main dishes a day, along with soup, salads, and sweets. The ever-changing menu features items like breakfast focaccia with cherry tomato, Kalamata olive, goat cheese, and dill; fennel and wild local cod on chili focaccia; and turmeric noodle soup with beans and lentils.
On one side of the lively little space is a small retail section, with everything from Sicilian olive oil to East Van Roasters chocolate bars. Pazzo Chow uses Milano beans for its rich espresso-based drinks, and when the weather is warm enough to be sipping them on patio tables outside underneath the striped canopy, you could be sitting in an Italian piazza.
A block away is the recently opened grocery, kitchen, and café called Dalina (687 Main Street), named after the late matriarch of the Bosa family. At the back of the gleaming contemporary space are shelves stocked with a broad range of foodstuffs, from locally made vegan spreads and grain-free granola to fresh produce and dried pasta. There are products from Rabbit River Farms and Two Rivers Specialty Meats as well as 99-cent cans of beans and dog treats.
“There wasn’t a place where you could get milk, eggs, bread, a sandwich, and a coffee in the neighbourhood,” says manager Natalie Charbonneau, who studied gastronomic sciences in Italy. “We want to be the place where you can get great steel-cut oats on Monday morning and salami for Saturday afternoon with your friends and where you can have an aperitivo and snacks on the patio.” (A year-round outdoor seating area and liquor licence are coming soon.)
Ready-made salads and meals, meanwhile, change seasonally, with recent offerings including a squash-and-fennel salad with cherries, hemp hearts, and chives; a bright apple-and-beet salad with candied pecans and goat cheese; and Cornish game hen with roasted Meyer lemon. Dalina has a private-label espresso, and for those who like to leave room in their coffee cup, there’s milk, soy milk, almond milk, and cream all available on tap.
Across from Dalina and expected to open in May in the former home of A20 Pizza is Straight Outta Brooklyn NYC Pizzeria (648 Main Street). The takeout/eat-in spot with two existing locations is run by Frank and Dom Morra, the same brothers behind Via Tevere on Victoria Drive. It will offer whole pies and pizza by the slice.
Among the popular types the new spot will carry are W.O.P (Without Peppers), with salami, ham, mushrooms, artichokes, and olives, as well as White, which consists of mozzarella, smoked provolone, ricotta, grana, garlic, and oregano.
New York–style pizza goes back to 1905, when an immigrant pizzaiolo from Naples named Gennaro Lombardi started serving pizza by the slice in his grocery store in Little Italy, according to Straight Outta Brooklyn’s website. The thin-crust slices took off, with Italian-American pizzaiolos making them throughout Brooklyn’s immigrant neighbourhoods. The Morras’ aim is to “bring a little New York to Vancouver”, and they’re excited about their forthcoming location.
“The food scene in Chinatown is still up-and-coming,” Dom tells the Straight. “Many great spots have recently popped up, and we see that trend continuing. Plus, I feel every neighbourhood needs their go-to slice and delivery pizza joint. I like the eclectic feel of Chinatown, the interesting mix of people and cultures.”