In many ways, Orto Artisan Pasta happened by chance. Service industry veteran Brigitte Raye wasn’t exactly looking to open an Italian restaurant in a quiet North Shore enclave the day she and her husband wandered past a quaint little property behind Capilano Mall, but it was love at first sight. The problem? The building was already occupied by the Ethical Kitchen cafe.
For some, that would have been the end of it—but Raye is not one to be deterred so easily. She phoned up Ethical Kitchen, and was surprised to learn that the owner had recently received a similar phone call from a baker also wanting to lease the property. And so, an opportunity arose: since the baker only needed the space in the mornings, what if Raye used the property for lunch and dinner? It was an unconventional arrangement, but with both parties willing to give it a shot, Ethical Kitchen closed its doors, and on July 1, 2017, the property reopened as both Orto Artisan Pasta and Bad Dog Bread.
“You know,” muses Raye, “things are really happening when we don’t expect them.”
Raye has been part of the Lower Mainland’s food scene for over 40 years. In the 1990s, she had her hand in a number of French restaurants, including the popular West Vancouver spot La Regalade—opened with her former husband, chef Alain Raye—and La Cigale in Kitsilano, which she worked at with her son Kevin (both establishments have since closed). Over this time, Raye made a name for herself with her front-of-house prowess, gracefully turning hospitality into an art form.
For her newest venture, she decided to team up with her other son, Steeve. This time around, though, the Rayes decided to try something new: Italian cuisine.
It was a bold move for a team experienced in French food, but Raye has three sound reasons for making the switch. First of all, the small garden adjacent to the property was ideal for growing the fresh herbs and vegetables essential to Italian dishes (orto actually means “garden” in Italian). Second, the restaurant’s somewhat obscure address meant the food needed to be familiar and accessible. “It was not obvious that this location would work for us,” says Raye, acknowledging Orto’s position in a rather quiet pocket of North Vancouver. To attract customers, they decided to focus on the crowd-pleasing flavours of Italy. As Raye points out, “Everybody likes Italian food.”
The final reason for the switch? “I changed husbands,” she says with a laugh. “The first one was French, and the second one is Italian.”
The idea behind Orto is simple: create fresh pasta that uses only local and organic ingredients. In fact, much of what goes into Orto’s dishes is foraged right from the garden, with that harvest supplemented by ingredients sourced from regional producers like North Arm Farm in Pemberton. The pasta itself is made fresh daily, and while the menu varies as seasons change and inspiration strikes, some fan-favourite staples include Pappardelle Bolognese, gnocchi, and Tagliolini Carbonara.
What makes Orto even more unique is its unconventional relationship with Bad Dog Bread. On paper, the arrangement to share the space made sense financially; still, both parties recognize it was a daring move. “It was a risk that we both took to share the facility with someone we’d never met before,” says Raye. Bad Dog’s owner Vadim Mugerman agrees: “We all took a chance on each other.”
But things seem to be working well, perhaps in part due to a shared love for making high-quality products from scratch. Mugerman mills his own flour in the back of the shop, and uses his incarnation of the space to sell handcrafted loaves of bread and slices of toast served with a choice of toppings, including homemade hummus. “My first love is hummus,” Mugerman says with a smile.
The advantages of this relationship extend beyond saving rent, too: Orto has incorporated Bad Dog’s breads into its menu, and Bad Dog in turn has customers coming into the bakery specifically to buy the loaves the ate with their Orto meal the night before.
When contemplating the restaurant’s unconventional set-up, Raye is astute. “Without being pretentious, because French people are known for that, I think what we have created here is unique,” she says. “There is no other place like this.”
Considering the restaurant’s story, it is perhaps unfair to say that Orto happened by chance. Instead, it seems to be the result of a handful of people understanding that, sometimes, risks need to be taken in order to create something truly special.