Great Neapolitan pizza is much more about the integrity of the ingredients used and the processes followed to handle them than it is about the complexity of the same.
In fact, when confronted with a Neapolitan pizza as a diner, one is struck by how straightforward the dish seems. Good crust, nice sauce, quality cheese, one or two additional toppings and there you have it.
In the spirit of this perceived simplicity, let me distill my thoughts about Nicli Antica down for you: it is next level pizza. It is executed flawlessly, according to explicit standards, and, while some may argue that taste is purely subjective, I would counter that Nicli Antica’s pizza is objectively delicious; I cannot imagine by what rational standards this food could be disparaged. Their pizza is, simply put, technically perfect.
Of course, there is much more to the experience of a restaurant than the technical excellence of its food. There is a well regarded Neapolitan pizza restaurant in Toronto, for example, the Queen Street West location of which remains one of my favourite places to eat in that town. Their pizza is also extraordinary and they have a nice lineup of appetizers, wines, and cocktails to round out the experience. Toronto lore has it, however, that this restaurant is such a stickler for tradition that one time a patron brought his aged Italian grandmother in for a taste of the old country. She ordered a Margherita pizza which arrived unsliced, as is the convention. When the patron asked the staff if they could possibly make an exception and cut it for her, as she was feeble and unable to do so herself, the staff patently refused, citing a corruption of authenticity.
I find such a stubborn stance absurd. At what stage do you lose sight of what business you’re in, after all? If you can’t slice a pizza for the elderly for purely academic reasons, perhaps you ought not to be in the hospitality industry at all. I mention this because rigidity it is a frequent trapping of places that bear the “authentic” moniker. In the name of the sanctity of tradition, all else falls by the wayside.
Not so at Nicli Antica; they may be dead serious there about producing AVPN-certified pizza (the first to commit to this rigorous Napoli-based global quality standard in Vancouver, incidentally) but they have some fun doing it. I suspect even Grandma would enjoy the sleek stainless steel scissors that are provided to diners to cut their pies, for example, or the bright orange chili oil that accompanies every pizza order. I sure did, as did my wife DJ, with whom I recently visited the new Edgemont Village location of Nicli. We had previously enjoyed nights out at the original Gastown location and had been eagerly waiting for what seemed like an interminable period of time for the North Shore venue to open ever since signage announcing its imminent arrival was posted on the windows of the Highland Boulevard shop so very long ago.
Though it has high ceilings and spans a considerable distance towards the back of the building, the Nicli dining room still feels compact, with many tables situated close to each other, fostering a sense of intimate community. DJ and I actually conferred with our neighbours at one point about the outstanding server who was manning our section. Having relieved our initial server and appearing for the first time about one third of the way into our meal, she introduced herself as Julia and, with her affable and easygoing manner, fully salvaged what was shaping up to be a rather trying dinner experience for us.
You see, our initial server seemed to take an instant and still unexplained dislike to us that was dramatically exacerbated when we politely pointed out to her that a guest had been waiting at the host stand at the front of the restaurant near our table for an awfully long time, standing there wholly unacknowledged by anyone, including the bartender, floor manager, hostess, and other servers.
For DJ and me, two former restaurant people, it was a cringe-worthy, uncomfortable circumstance as the would-be diner grew increasingly impatient and rightfully incredulous at being so consistently, completely overlooked. Having mentioned this to our initial server, however, the already frosty, disdainful attitude increased twofold, prompting me to actively seek eye contact with someone in charge.
Thankfully, said server #1 finished her shift early and was replaced by someone with a natural flare for service and genuine interest in the job at hand. The subsequent service experience under Julia’s direction was perfectly in line with Nicli Antica’s truly outstanding food, reinforcing my point above that there is much more to the quality of a meal than technical prowess.
Of course, the technical prowess of Nicli Antica remains unassailable, as first evidenced by an outstanding starter dish of baby gem lettuce salad called the Octavian ($9). Crisp, succulent leaves were tossed in a deep, heady garlic caper dressing with shaved pecorino Romano cheese, salty morsels of house-smoked bacon and an accompanying wedge of flatbread. The portion size was truly enormous (I received the meal-sized portion instead of the appetizer, a nice, if unintentional, bonus from the young kitchen) and the flavours were bold, providing an invigorating start to the meal.
I nibbled some olives ($9) ordered from the appetizer menu, particularly enjoying the meaty, subtly brined and fruity Castelvetrano variety, as DJ and I sipped Aperol Spritz from the cocktail list. Nicli’s appetizer list is extensive and varied, with dishes such as simple house baked rosemary focaccia ($6), burrata with roasted beets ($19), Brussels sprouts with smoked pork belly ($16), rigatoni carbonara ($23), or a charcuterie board of both local and imported meats and cheeses ($26).
For the main event, from a selection of 10 pizzas and four calzones, DJ chose a classic Margherita ($16) made with deliciously fresh and brightly flavoured pomodoro sauce, melted disks of fior di latte, sharp grana Padano, and fresh basil leaves. The proven combination was impeccably executed here and, as expected, the crust of the pizza was out of this world, at once springy and crispy, singed and soft, so good that I would make a trip to Nicli Antica just to eat that crust, perhaps with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I also went very traditional with my pizza, choosing the Napoletana ($21) made with pomodoro, mozzarella di bufala, oregano, garlic confit, anchovies, and Italian parsley. The balance of salty and creamy, herbaceous and acidic notes was spot on and I made relatively short work of the pizza, even though the crust is dense and filling and the toppings weighty. With our meal we paired a nice bottle of Aglianico (blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, $67), the rustic and concentrated red cutting through the richness of the food.
A classic tiramisu ($10), nicely soaked through with Frangelico, capped off the meal, along with espresso.
I am of the mind that if you consider yourself a pizza connoisseur, Nicli Antica is a required experience.
Nicli Antica, 3142 Highland Boulevard. Niclipizzeria.com. 604-770-1240.