Slow Food at Pizzeria Primastrada

You may remember that I excitedly joined Slow Food Vancouver Island this past June.  The AGM was being held at Hilary’s Cheese just down the road, and I was ready to meet some other food-obsessed neighbours.  That event was lots of fun, but there haven’t been any since.  Until this past week.

The invite was tempting: dinner at Pizzeria Prima Strada in Victoria, $25 for all the antipasti and pizza you could eat, a tour and discussion of the wood-fired pizza oven and cooking techniques, and then the annual cookbook exchange.  Now that’s a party!

It was a beautiful, rejuvenating evening that did just what slow food is supposed to do: nourish all of the senses as well as the soul.  The new Bridge St location of the pizzeria is beautiful.  It embodies that wonderful mix of warm and casual west coast with a recycled industrial edge.  Note the concrete countertops/ bar and the amazing light fixtures (holes punched in the steel by the owners 🙂 ):

And Drumroaster coffee!

The star of the kitchen is the oven–I wish I could remember everything that our generous hosts–owners Geoff and Cristen Dallas–told us about how it came to be.  I do remember that it was built to the detailed specifications of the traditional Napoli craftsmen and that even when the early staff come in to prep in the morning, the oven is still at 500 degrees.  They use the heat to proof their baguettes and then cook them once the temperature comes down a little more.  Then it gets fired up to its full heat to cook the pizzas for just a couple of minutes all afternoon and evening.  Amazing!

The meal that came out of that oven was stunning.  We started with antipasti platters of cheese, cured meat, quince paste and jelly squares, chunky tapenade and slices of oven baked thin focaccia.  I paced myself with some idea of what was coming, and I’m glad I did.

Next up were large salad bowls of bitter greens dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, then came the pasta.  Homeade tagliatelle with rabbit and pomodori sauce.  On this night, although I didn’t deliberately help myself to slices of meats on their own, I was not a vegetarian.  The pasta (and the rabbit) was delicious, and despite knowing there was still pizza to come, I had two small helpings.  Gorgeous!

There were 5 types of pizza, and I didn’t try them all (didn’t pace myself quite enough 🙂 ).  On my first bite of the Margherita, though, I was surprised.  I’ve read lots about Neapolitan pizza over the years, but I’ve never been to Italy, and never tried the real thing.  I always assumed that the thin crust would mean there would be some crispiness that would complement all those flash-roasted toppings.  But this pizza was chewy and soft–melt in your mouth!  I asked Geoff about what makes the perfect pizza, what I should be looking for.  He said the goal is a slight bit of crispiness only on the pizza’s outer edge, which should also be characterized by large holes.  The pizza crust of this pizza looks like it has a deep edge, but it actually doesn’t.  The illusion is formed because without the toppings weighing it down, the edge puffs up light and bubbly.  The rest of the crust should be chewy and soft; “we’re not making a cracker,” he told me.  Who knew?!

There was a funghi pizza that melted my heart–I love wild mushrooms and this was loaded, and just touched by the occasional crumble of gorgonzola.  My favorite, though, was the special that night.  I don’t remember all of it, and it’s possible I’m mixing up carmelized onions with the gorgonzola on the funghi.  But I remember the smokiness of the grilled radicchio, the salty smokiness of the house cured ham, and that the whole thing tasted as good as anything I’ve ever eaten.  Sorry there aren’t more photos!

The whole evening was memorable for its conversations, new connections, and much laughter around the communal wood tables flanked by the stacked split wood for the oven.  I can’t wait to bring the Skipper down for another experience, can’t wait for the next Slow Food event, and can’t wait to build our own wood-fired pizza oven in the back yard!  (Oh yes, there are plans….)

PS: For more detail on the pizza and the oven’s story, check out Don Genova’s blog–he’s also the illustrious Slow Food Vancouver Island convivium leader.

Restaurant Review: Genoa Bay Cafe

A friend of ours had a birthday this past week and at the spur of the moment, she decided she wanted to come up to our neck of the woods and do something.  Conveniently, there was something we’d been wanting to do, and without knowing it, she gave us the perfect excuse.

We have a very small sailboat moored just outside of Cowichan Bay.  Our closest destination across the bay is another small bay, Genoa Bay.  It’s a tiny spot, with just a few houses on the point and a marina with some float homes and sailboats.  But it has a not-so-hidden secret: the lovely Genoa Bay Cafe.

Genoa Bay Cafe

Skipper and I had a lovely dinner here years ago, but had heard that things had gone downhill more recently.  Until new owners and a new chef took over in February–since then it’s been nothing but raves.   On a beautiful afternoon a few weeks back, we sailed over and had no luck getting in for dinner; even with the patio, they were booked solid.  Lesson learned: call ahead, even on a weeknight.

So we did!  Got a reservation for 6pm, all arrived at our place at 5pm, we set sail at 5:30pm, and even without high winds, we docked up at the marina’s transient finger at 6:01.  After a warm greeting, we were off to the patio to admire the view and begin the relaxation process.

First up, beer.  Unfortunately, this was the only complaint.  They have the usual suspects, but for a restaurant of this caliber, we were surprised that their only craft or micro brew was Vancouver Island Brewery.  So Piper’s it was.  Not my first choice with all the amazing beer out there these days, but as I said to the server, if I HAVE to sit on the patio on a summer night and enjoy a beer, I guess I can manage whatever they put in front of me!

We managed to tear ourselves away from the view and the conversation and take a look at the menu.  It’s small–the kitchen must be tiny!–but reasonably varied, and very fresh.  Note to vegetarians, though, you might get lucky with the specials, but otherwise you’re out of luck.  I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if they would accommodate you upon request when you call ahead.

We started with Saltspring Island mussels in white wine and BC Calamari.  The mussels were delicious, but the calamari was a revelation.  Tender strips had been “ginger marinated” and then deep fried.  They had a very light batter of some sort (not often I’m stymied, but this might have been just a light flouring), so they weren’t crispy like calamari often is, but wow.  Fantastic.

For mains I tried the halibut and chips, our friend had a burger, and the Skipper decided to splurge on the 8 oz Ribeye with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal veg.  Though the prices were comparable with many higher end restaurants we’ve been to, the portions were definitely more generous.  The fries, and you’ll have to trust that we are connoisseurs in this regard, were outstanding.  Kennebec potatoes, again very lightly deep fried, not greasy at all, just light and crispy with lots of flavour and not overly salted.  The burger was approved, the steak was cooked exactly as requested, veggies were not just a pretty side, and the garlic mash was creamy and savory.  My halibut, like the calamari, was deep fried almost without batter–not a finger food because of it, but delicious, tender, and as fresh as it gets.  My only quibble was the apple-fennel slaw, which was a little goopy with mayonnaise, rather than the julienned, crunchy, vinegary freshness I was hoping for.

Despite the portions, we decided we couldn’t resist homemade dessert.  Warm berry crumble and Callebaut chocolate terrine were worth being stuffed to the gills as we stumbled out.

The service was outstanding, the view second to none, the food worth paying more for.  A friend was recently cranky about paying $16 for a burger at the Canoe Club in Victoria.  I think we all get cranky when we’re getting basically the same meal that we could have had cheaper somewhere else.  But when food is so well-prepared, and goes beyond the care that we might take at home (no matter how passionate I am as a home chef, a Tuesday night is not usually quite this extravagant 🙂 ), then we are happy to pay the extra.  And by the way, the burger here was $13.50.

And the best part?  Not having to drive home!

I know. Life is awful. 😉

(Yes, we do have extra life jackets on the boat.  Why, would you like to come too next time? 🙂 )

Good, Better, Best

A friend and I were out to dinner last week at the lovely neighbourhood bistro, La Piola.  The food was quite good, the service was well-meaning if not exactly efficient, and a good time was had by all.  But it got me thinking (again) about the exotification (I’ve decided it is a word 🙂 ) of food; how some foods begin to have reputation for being the best, however that might be defined, and a premium is charged, paid, and an elite fetishism begins.

Victoria has a pretty significant foodie scene for a city of it’s size.  It’s a city with a lot of money and wealth circulating (look at the average house prices!) , and that gets combined with the environmentalist vibe that pays attention to carbon footprint and food security issues (especially given that we live on an island).  This has led to a strong local food movement, something I am all in favour of.  There are a growing number of small restaurants that are focusing on fresh, local ingredients, and there are also a growing number of local food growers and food processors that are making those ingredients available to the public.  Some of those foods have gathered that foodie following that makes them highly prized status items.

A couple of cases in point: Fairburn Farm Mozzerella di Bufala and Venturi-Schulze Balsamic Vinegar. Incidentally, both of these producers are located just down the road from us–do we live in the best place or what?!

The mozzarella from Fairburn is legendary.  The family who runs the farm was trying to import Canada’s only herd of water buffalo when the “mad cow” crisis hit.  They got lots of publicity for their challenges as they struggled to hold on to their dream and business.  They were successful in overcoming the obstacles, and now they produce water buffalo milk that a highly regarded small cheesemaker in Courtenay turns into reputably beautiful–certainly hard to come by–cheese.

The balsamic vinegar is even more prized.  Venturi-Schulze is one of the original winemaking families on the island, and their reputation for attention to detail, craft, and hygiene is well-deserved.  Their wines have long been available by subscription in small amounts, and much of the wine and vinegar has never really made it to the public–it was bought up too quickly by restaurants and others in the know.  They are evidently producing enough vinegar now that I have seen a few bottles for sale here and there in stores.  Prices start at $49 for 750 mls.

I have made it a habit to try these and other hard-to-find delicacies whenever the opportunity arises.  Though I’ve been a vegetarian (ok, a “pescaterian”) for almost 20 years, I’ve been known to taste rabbit, duck, pate, foie gras, and other rare treats when out with others, simply to see if I’m missing anything amazing!  Most of the time, though, I find that I’m not.

So out for dinner the other night, my friend and I decided to share the Caprese Salad.  It advertised fresh heritage tomatoes (hothouse, of course, right now), Mozzarella di Bufala, and Venturi-Shulze balsamic vinegar.  How divine!  But what I found was that in fact, the taste didn’t live up to the hype.  I don’t know if it’s because hot house tomatoes just really don’t have anything on fresh tomatoes in the middle of summer, or because the whole thing really needed a sprinkle of salt, or because I’m getting so used to the freshest ingredients that we pull out of the garden and ocean ourselves that I’m getting spoiled, but I found the whole salad good, but not great.  The bread from the bakery next door was fine too–a cut above the supermarket for sure–but it has nothing on our daily bread from True Grain where the reputation and product do match well.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this; I’m passionate about food precisely because I have amazing foodie experiences that leave me desperate for more–moments of transcendance create visceral, lasting memories.  A meal with duck at the TinWis in Tofino, A beautiful spinach salad with grilled portabella mushrooms and balsamic vinegar at the uber-romantic Il Terrazzo in Victoria, my first raw oyster at Brasserie L’Ecole (or was it Pescatore‘s?), that made me go, “I can’t believe I’ve been missing this all these years!” (I love oysters, but the big local Fanny Bay ones aren’t so appetizing to consider raw…I was stunned at how good these were)

So I keep trying.  But more often than not these days, I seem to realize that beyond any claims of “authenticity” “tradition” “care” price or other kind of hype, the only criteria that seems to really make the difference between good, better, and best, is quality technique (skill?) and freshness.  And that, fortunately for us on Vancouver Island, is becoming less and less elite and inaccessible.

And I think that’s also the issue that keeps bringing me back: good food should not be an elite, high-class, expensive option.  Here in North America, these prized foods are fetishized, but in European traditional culture (more on the nostalgia for that here another time!) these are the foods of the people–the least commodified products of all.  The Skipper grew up with little money in a hamlet on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore; what did they eat? Lobster, of course. 🙂  But I guess, as much as I have a sense of mission to make the best available to all, I also recognize that it is human nature to create status symbols to differentiate power levels, and that anything rare will continue to be used in that way.  Somehow I suspect I’m not done exploring these issues!