Walking into Vaticano Cucina feels a little like walking into a casino in Las Vegas, thanks to the large and bright LED-lit sign. It is one of many noticeable changes in this Italian restaurant on Gateway Boulevard previously home to Koutouki Taverna.
Unavoidable to notice as well, are the three Sistine Chapel-style frescos on the ceiling, and the ancient Romanesque lion's head façade on the wood-burning oven.
For those brave enough to open an Italian restaurant in the same city as culinary capos Rosario Caputo and Daniel Costa, the comparison will be swift and harsh, so let me address the elefante in the room: Vaticano Cucina is not of their ilk.
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But that's OK — they don't pretend to be.
It is, however, impossible to avoid comparison when the same dishes, like arancini and zeppole, are served.
Arancini large, glossy, heavy
On that note, let's get the bad news out of the way: Vaticano's arancini are large, glossy and heavy.
There is an absence of the required breadcrumbs on the exterior and an absence of flavour and moisture on the interior. The trio, individually filled cheese, mushroom and sausage, were dry and flavourless.
The deep-fried doughy treats called zeppole sat in oil not hot enough for too long. The result was greasy nuggets made no better when dipped into the accompanying shiny, commercial chocolate and caramel sauce.
Playing off the Vatican theme, the cocktail program is kitschy, with names like Sin and Tonic, Virgin Mary Caesar and Holy Water, to name a few. However, they do make some classics as well, like a Martini, Negroni, and Manhattan.
My advice would be for diners to focus on the wine selection instead. The Negroni came topped with club soda and after some discussion, a proper Negroni — sans soda but, regrettably, also sans orange peel — was brought to the table.
The good news
There is good news. Vaticano's wood-fired oven reaches temperature in excess of 850 F delivering a pizza in short order, with a lovely rustic crust, softly charred in all the right places. The toppings are innovative, as are the names of the pies — all based on saints.
St. Anthony will have meat lovers salivating with generous amounts of soppressata, Italian sausage, genoa salami and prosciutto cotto.
The St. Joseph sports a creamy shallot sauce with guanciale, Italian sausage, pecorino and a lightly baked egg on top. The pizzas can be had Neapolitan or Montanaro style (deep-fried), and either choice is a solid one.
The difference between Montanaro and Neapolitan is slight with the deep-fried version resulting in a deeper flavour, but hardly noticeable difference in texture.
The pasta offerings are refreshingly creative and being told all pastas are made in-house was heartening. But as we found out, it wasn't true — Vaticano imports most of the pasta from Italy.
The use of dry pasta is not a problem when the pasta is of quality (as is the case here), but a more thorough education from management to front-of-house is needed to avoid confusion.
The bucatini carbonara, touted as the most popular of the pasta dishes, didn't disappoint. The pasta was perfectly cooked, dressed with a creamy cheese and egg sauce, and topped with freshly grated parmesan.
I doubt we'll see il Papa sitting down for a Sin and Tonic and arancini in this Vatican kitchen, but I'd have no qualms returning for pasta and more saintly pizza while exploring the rest of the menu with friends.