Chapter 1, A Kernel of Truth
By Wade Kinley
Fiorino is a new restaurant concept in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood slated for opening in the fall. In this series, we’ll follow along to meet the people, hear the stories and get an on-the-ground sense of what it takes to open a new restaurant in the city.
I meet up with Fiorino’s owner-operator Giovanni Mascagni at the new space at the bottom of the London Hotel on Georgia Street. Recently gutted, it bears little resemblance to its former life as Wheat & Barley, or the Brixton Café before that. Dust hangs in the air as we carefully step around the tilers installing the rustic white and orange squares bringing the room back to life from the ground up. He shows me where they’ll build the bar so it will bask in natural light from the windows above, and where the individual booths will line the wall under sconces and framed black and white photos.
The 1964 white Vespa in the corner helps paint the picture of the authentic Italian wine bar and eatery this room will become.
Giovanni was born and raised in the hills just outside Florence, Italy, by a Canadian mother and Italian father. In 2013, Gio moved to BC for a career in bush flying, and came up through Vancouver’s restaurant scene as a way to support his studies. But Italy isn’t that easy to leave behind, especially when you’re hungry. Gio found himself missing his favourite snack, a Florentine street food staple that is a simple sandwich of Tuscan schiacciata bread full of cured meats, fresh cheese, seasonal veggies, and homemade sauces and spreads.
Sure, you can get a good sandwich in Vancouver, but that bread… The nostalgia proved too much. So what do you do when you can’t find what you need? You make it yourself. Several attempts in his Kitsilano apartment kitchen got frustratingly close to the taste and consistency that defines schiacciata (which translates to “squashed” — so think: flatbread.) The true joy, however, came when he shared it with friends, many of whom had never tried it before. That’s when the light went on, and Fiorino was born.
“One of my favourite memories of living in Florence is when my cousins would come from Canada, or friends from out of town, and I could show them around and show off my city,” Gio says. “The sights, and tastes and traditions I’m so proud of, it’s the same in these sandwiches.”
But if he was going to share his passion with all of Vancouver, he knew “close” wasn’t gonna cut it. It would have to be the real thing, no shortcuts. So Gio went back home to learn from a master. For six months, he apprenticed under Dario Della Lunga at one of the most famous bakeries in Florence, Chicco di Grano in the Sant’Ambrogio Market. Up at 2 am, he’d toil in the back of the bakery until 8, measuring, mixing and folding and perfecting the deceptively simple recipe of water, flour and yeast, topped with olive oil and salt.
That left him with his afternoons wide open, and again I will remind our readers, this is Italy. Back in Florence and reconnecting with friends at the small wine bars and cafes that adorn that city, Gio’s dream for Fiorino grew to be about more than just a perfect recipe.
“I want to recreate the whole dining experience that’s in Florence,” he says. “My friends and I would meet at a place like La Sosta dei Papi, where we could get a drink and a bite in the early evening before the rest of the night’s plan, if there even was one. We wouldn’t need reservations or endless text message threads to coordinate. You know you can just show up and something interesting is always happening. And we could do it all without breaking our bank accounts.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the core concept behind Fiorino. A panini bar by day to cater to the hungry working crowd who need a quick bite, but still want fresh and healthy ingredients, and maybe a nip of wine to wash it all down. Thanks to its many former lives, the new space already has a sizable kitchen, so all the skills Gio gained in Italy will be put to good use baking fresh bread daily.
At 3 pm, Fiorino will transition into aperitivo, that time of the evening Italians know well, after work and before dinner when friends meet over a glass of wine or an Aperol Spritz and an appetizer before the rest of the night unfolds. Vancouverites will recognize this concept somewhat as happy hour, but the difference here is that it’s not just a timed-out ploy to get people in the door. It’s an atmosphere that lasts all evening long. With the first drink comes a complimentary snack to accompany it, most likely schiacciata topped with locally sourced ingredients.
“The younger Italian crowd especially love it,” Gio says. “When money’s tight – like it was when I was baking there for free – Aperitivo can be an affordable dinner out.”
“When everyone is welcome, it helps to build that sense of community that I want for Fiorino,” he says.
But of course, one does not build community all on one’s own. In our next installment in Diary of Opening, we’ll meet the partners helping to bring Gio’s dream of home to his new hometown.
Follow Fiorino on Instagram at @fiorino_isf