Italian chefs in Vancouver dish on foods that remind them of home and affordable, excellent wine from the Beautiful Country

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      Italian Day may not be taking place on Commercial Drive this year because of COVID-19, but we wanted to recognize the local chefs who feed us the food of their native land with such flair. We connected with a few of them to hear what dishes remind them of home. We also asked them to recommend a spectacular Italian wine that won’t break the bank.

      Here’s what they had to say. And here’s to everyone in Vancouver’s Italian restaurant community who works so hard to keep us craving the seductive flavours of the Bel Paese ("Beautiful Country").

      Alessandro Riccobono, executive chef of Mangia Cucina & Bar, was born and raised in Palermo, Sicily, in a family of restaurateurs: his father was a chef and owned two restaurants while he was growing up, and his brothers and other relatives also work in the industry. After he finished culinary college there, he gained experience in London before moving to Vancouver 2012.

      “The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Sicilian food is the arancina,” Riccobono tells the Straight. “It is a delicious saffron risotto ball filled with various sauces, for example Bolognese ragu or bechamel-and-ham. Once shaped, it is then rolled in breadcrumbs and quickly fried. The arancina originated around the 10th century in Sicily when the island was under Arab rule. Its name translates to 'a small orange' because of the round shape and golden colour of the final product. 

      “Having an arancina takes me straight back to Sicily and the flavours of my childhood,” he says. “An arancina is something I would have bought and eaten during recess in my school days. At Mangia Cucina & Bar we serve our own version of the arancina: vegetarian with mozzarella and bechamel sauce on the inside, topped with our irresistible house-made pistachio pesto.” (You can watch him make it on Mangia's IGTV channel.)

      Riccobono’s preferred Italian wine is a fortified marsala wine, sipped after dinner as a digestif. It has been produced in Marsala, Sicily—an hour from where he grew up—since 1833.

      “My favourite one is the Florio - Marsala Superiore Dolce for $17.99 a bottle,” he says. “Fortified and then aged in oak barrels, with its amber colour and scent of raisins, it is always a great way to end the day,” Riccobono says.

      Pino Posteraro, chef-owner of Cioppinos Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca—who’s  a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy—hails from Lago. Right now, anything with pasta reminds him of home. “Particularly this month, there is everywhere live basil plants that inspire me to do pasta with pesto,” Posteraro says. “Don’t panic if you don't have pine nuts. Almonds and walnuts will do instead.

      Cioppino’s is reopening shortly after major renovations, which happened to take place during the peak of COVID-19. Posteraro not only heads the kitchen at the Yaletown restaurant and develop the menu; he also curates the wine list.

      “A nice Vermentino Lunae from the same region [Liguria] is the perfect companion for the pesto,” he says. “Fresh and crisp.”

      Alessandro Vianello is executive chef of Kitchen Table Restaurants (Ask for Luigi and Di Beppe Ristorante, among others, whose family is from a small island in Venice called Giudecca. “My nonna still lives in the same apartment my dad grew up in,” he says.

      The dish that brings him back to that place is mozzarella en carozza, ideally served with an ice-cold beer. “It’s essentially a deep-fried prosciutto and cheese sandwich,” Vianello says. “Not the healthiest snack, but it’s great. There is a place in Venice called Rosticceria San Bartolomeo that does an amazing one. You can just stand in the street and watch the world go by.”

      He favours wine from the D.O.C. (authenticated origin) wine area of Lison Pramaggiore and Venice. “I like the Savian Lison Classico or their Cabernet Franc as well,” he says. “The Lison is a grape that a lot of people may have not heard of. It’s fruit forward, crisp, and refreshing. I like it on a patio in the sun. As for the other wine, I am just generally a fan of Cab Franc. Both of these wines are produced at a winery that’s about a 20-minute drive from where my family lives in Italy.”

      Phil Scarfone, culinary director of Osteria Savio Volpe, Pepino’s Spaghetti House, and Caffe La Tana, has yet to visit Racalmuto, Sicily, where his father’s great grandparents lived, but he was spent plenty of time on the mainland.

      “I absolutely love the smell of slow simmering tomato sauce,” Scarfone says. “My grandma Susie would always have a pot of simmering sauce made from tomatoes that she canned herself every year. She would simmer spicy sausages and meatballs in there, and serve it with penne rigate every time we came to visit.

      “I’m a big fan of 2016 Langhe Nebbiolo from Giovanni Rosso,” he says of the wine from the Piemonte region. “It really pairs well with all of the food that I enjoy cooking, including braised and grilled meats and rich hearty pastas. It’s $27.99 and is a steal of a deal.”