Francesco Alongi, Vancouver.

March 2014.

I had heard of this restaurant and driven past it over the years, my dad once mentioning it as a fine dining destination, but somehow we never ate there. Alongi we are told is a Sicilian opera singer who opened an Italian restaurant on Richards Street in the 1970s, worked for a few years for Umberto Menghi at Il Giardino, and then around 10 years ago opened the existing location on Burrard.

It’s reviewed as “traditional” and “old school”, and we hoped for something similar to the defunct Café de Medici on Robson Street which we always enjoyed. The atmosphere here is more contemporary with its glass front and abstract paintings, and a pretty Asian (not Sicilian) lady taking our coats. Waiters however are numerous, dressed in white shirts, and all middle-aged males, and the tables are well-spaced and draped in traditional white linen.

The menu is also traditional new world Italiano: antipasto, pasta in many forms, veal done multiple ways, and then steak, chicken, etc. for the kind of diner prevalent in the 1950s who didn’t feel comfortable with “foreign” food. The wine list is respectable and runs to a page for each of the major Italian regions, but also reaches into France and the New World. Prices for wine look to be 2+ times retail so a bit steep. You can bring your own bottle but the corkage is $40.

The waiter was diffident, not unpleasantly, but eventually justifiably. He seemed a native North American man who discussed the dishes (asked which ones he favoured) as though the subject had never occurred to him before. He forgot Robin’s glass of white wine, had to be asked for more butter, and was inconsistent in the cadence of service in spite of limited responsibility as far as we could see. Not harsh or arrogant at all, just inattentive.

A beef carpaccio we shared was really delicious, with plenty of good reggiano, little pickles, big capers and mustard and an adequate quantity in spite of expected very thin slices. My second course was stuffed quail with a mushroom risotto. The little birds were partly-deboned and quite tasty as I soaked up a nice vinous reduction sauce, in spite of being overdone. The risotto was really delicious with full and lovely portobello taste. Robin’s lobster lasagna, recommended by the waiter, was really beautiful. I’ve always found lobster problematic both when I cook it and in restaurants, usually rubbery and often just tasteless. This was probably long-cooked so consistency wasn’t an issue but the lobster flavour was sweetly maximized and seemed to infuse the pasta. One of the nicest dishes I’ve tasted in quite a while.

$230 pre-tip, but mind you this included an overpriced $130 2007 Barolo (we nearly brought exactly the same bottle from our cabinet here in town which cost us $50 at the liquor store), so the food was quite reasonably-priced for its quality.

The overall impression is pretty chiaroscuro, as Renaissance Italians would say. The food was very tasty but trattoria quality and selection not haute cuisine, in an atmosphere that might encourage one to expect the latter. As an enthusiast for other older Vancouver spots like Hy’s, I guess I might have preferred the location of the original Alongi. The 900-1200 blocks of Seymour and Richards streets in the 1960s and 70s still had rows of early 20th century “Vancouver special” houses, several of which were ethnic family restaurants. I’ve been told diners at Alongi on Richards would occasionally be serenaded by the man himself. I myself remember dinner at Ken Iaci’s Casa Capri on Seymour, where one couldn’t ignore the sounds of the family preparing food and eating their own dinner in the kitchen in the back while enjoying a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce in the main room, and drinking alcohol surreptitiously brought in a paper bag. That scene is as long gone as my youth.

The new Alongi is a short bus ride from our apartment and I could see us returning to try that incredible lasagna again. Food 8.1 (would be 9.0 selectively) service 6.4 ambience 7.1 value 8.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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