Basilio (Bas) Pesce owns and cooks in an Italian restaurant in the Parkdale area of Queen Street West in Toronto, called Porzia. A while back he hosted a fabulous dinner featuring Vancouver chef Robert Belcham. Last week, Belcham returned the honour, and had Pesce cooking with him at Campagnolo in Vancouver. They called the evening “Fratello”, meaning brotherhood; this is the leading edge of what Pesce calls the New Guard of Canadian cooking.
He sits in Campagnolo mid-day, the dinner a few hours away still, but aromas filling the air, and explains what he means. “There is a new group coming along, Robert being a mentor to many of us. The food is always local, sustainable, usually good value with great service. But we want a restaurant to be great, not good. Certainly not mediocre. The difference is usually just five or 10 minutes of extra effort, to get that great experience to a diner.” He is clearly passionate about his profession, and it shows in the cooking. “We are constantly making small tweaks to dishes, and it seems we can be a little more adventurous these days,” Pesce says. “People are really ready to explore a bit. One of our most popular dishes, something we can’t even take off the menu for a week, is a grilled cotechino with lentils. I don’t think it would have been so popular five years ago.”
For the Campagnolo dinner, all dishes were served a la famiglia; things began with fava bean crostini, lemon and sea urchin botarga. Next was a delicious summer dish of UBC radishes with cultured taleggio butter and clay pepper salt, followed by a spicy ’Nduja sausage made with pork heart, served with strawberries and tomatoes. Then came a show-stopping pasta plate, of corzetti (flat circles of delicious hand-made noodles), with B.C. spot prawns and zucchini flowers. Then, roasted 50-day dry-aged loin of Berkshire pork and confit pork neck with a hearty farro polenta, sautéed and caramelized zucchini, roasting juices. B.C. cherries with meringue, crema, and olive oil made up the light, delicate dessert.
You could observe Belcham and Pesce working side by side in the kitchen throughout the evening, making it look easy. What assuredly was easy, though, was ensuring every plate that came out to the two long tables was completely empty when it went back. It is safe to say the future of dining in Canada is in good hands.
Photos by Katharine Manson.