Commercial Drive (Vancouver, BC)
The Drive, as it is known, is one delicious thoroughfare. Food-centric and loaded with food shops, it is best known for the eight-block stretch called “Little Italy,” where many Italian Immigrants originally opened food stores after coming to Vancouver in the 1970s.
Now extending for 22 blocks with about 300 storefronts, the shops on Commercial Drive are more diverse and no longer all Italian in origin, but the Italian influence remains strong, with shops serving wood-fired pizza, cappuccino, bakeries, delis and artisan ice cream stores among the mix.
With each wave of immigration over the years, other ethnic groups have found their way here, including people from the Caribbean, El Salvador, Nepal and Mexico, each adding new restaurants and diverse boutiques. Surrounded by a neighborhood of residential homes and small apartment buildings, “The Drive” caters to its neighborhood as well as the visitors who come here attracted by the shopping, restaurants and nightlife and recently, breweries. All, of course, are an essential ingredient for attracting a young hip demographic and are encouraged and welcomed in growing cities.
As a result, Commercial Drive has evolved into one of the most colorful neighborhoods in Vancouver.
Joanne and I visited Commercial Drive around ten on a Saturday morning. It was a lovely warm day and people were walking around carrying cappuccinos, lovers were strolling hand in hand, young couples were walking with strollers — as well as the pierced and tattooed. It was diverse, ethnically and age-wise, but weighted toward the younger, hip generation.
We skipped the breweries and the tattoo parlors (decided to do them another time !!) and opted for two of the Italian shops, one a deli and the other a bakery.
La Grotto del Formaggi
“La Grotto del Formaggi” is an authentic Italian deli run by the Buzzese Family. As its name indicates, it is a “Grotto of Cheese” and while it does have a good selection, there is much more to the Grotto than cheese.
In 1975 Fortunato Bruzzese and his wife arrived in Vancouver. Born in Mammola, Reggio Calabria, Italy, he had emigrated to Montreal before moving to Vancouver. It was in here that he found a small Italian Deli on Commercial Drive in a neighborhood with a few other Italian owned shops in what would become “Little Italy.” Seeing an opportunity not to be missed, he bought the shop. With hard work, he achieved success and moved to his present larger space in 1997.
When Fortunato bought the deli, there were no other authentic Italian delis and this presented an opportunity for a young man who was prepared to work hard. Fast forward 42 years and he has a successful Italian food “emporium,” a multigenerational company in which the entire family is involved.
Fortunato is in the store, every day taking time off only to watch his favorite soccer team. He is very approachable and customers are continuously seeking his advice and recommendations, and explanations on the subtle differences of the imported oils, which cheese to buy for this evening’s pasta dinner and the deliciousness of aged balsamic vinegars. This is a personal business and Fortunato is the unofficial public relations expert, his knowledge honed after a lifetime immersed in this business and polished by years of talking to his customers.
Domenico, his son, went to culinary school, intending to be a chef. He followed up spending time in Italy working in restaurants, but returned to Vancouver and to go into the business where he had spent his school year afternoons, unconsciously “inhaling” the business. Since coming back, Domenico has grown the business’ wholesale division which offers high-end products to the many hotel and restaurant groups in Vancouver as well as other specialty food shops. Even though the shop now has an off-site warehouse, it remains a true family business: Fortunato’s wife Anna and daughter Sandra run a catering division, too.
It is engaging to walk around the shop, as it has all the ingredients and cooking utensils for preparing Italian dishes. An extraordinary selection of imported olive oils, Balsamic vinegars aged many years with many stars, imported tinned tomatoes essential for the best sauce, pasta in all the shapes and sizes from Italy that one does not usually see, imported cookies and candy and a huge selection of cheese. Then there is cookware, bowls, serving platters, and cooking utensils, sieves and strainers, cheese graters, and pasta serving spoons.
#1 Sandwich in Vancouver.
This year, according to a vote organized by the Vancouver Sun, La Grotto Del Formaggio won the top award for “The Best Sandwich in Vancouver.” The sandwich department is located in the center of the store’s long counter. There were only a few people waiting in line when we walked in but by the time we left, it had grown to a small crowd. The store has always served sandwiches; but when a new display fridge for the deli meats was installed in 1996, sandwiches became big business.
Special bread and rolls are baked locally at Fortuna Bakery for the sandwiches. Standing in line, one begins to “eat with one’s eyes” on seeing all the tempting options. There is a selection of at least twelve deli meats, ten amazing cheeses, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a selection of sauces both savory and sweet, mayo, a few mustards, pickles, artichokes and eggplant, homemade meatballs and tomato sauce all teasing the taste buds. The secret is that these are fresh, custom sandwiches, made to order by well-trained and informed sandwich makers.
We stopped to chat with Fortunato and ask him to pause while Joanne took his photograph. They had a discussion about a Swiss Cheese, tete de moine that is cut with a special cutter, called a girol, forming the cheese into rosettes as it cuts.
Fortunato is a warm, friendly man, with twinkling eyes and a reservoir of knowledge worthy of someone who has just turned seventy-one. He enjoys what he does and loves his customers. Would he ever retire? Probably not. Where else could he have such a good time? What would he do if he did not come to work each day?
This is where he is meant to be.
La Grotta del Formaggio.
1791 Commerce Drive,
Vancouver BC 5VN 4A4
Hours: 9.00 a.m. – 6.00 p.m.
Who can resist the aroma of freshly baked bread?
Walking down Commercial Drive, passing Fratelli Bakery with the aroma of freshly baked bread and cookies is irresistible. It must be the chemistry in our brain that evokes a feeling of comfort and reminds us of our childhood.
Entering the bakery, we found a wonderland of freshly baked goods, tantalizingly displayed, tempting the taste buds.
There are at least fourteen yeast breads, including asiago cheese and olive, raisin walnut, focaccia and rye, three varieties of baguette and five different bread roll options. And the same bread “starter” that Marco Fratelli used forty years ago is still being used today in the yeast products.
The selection of cakes and cookies is endless: cheesecakes, fruit pies, flans, profiteroles, biscotti, cannoli, croissants and on and on. About sixteen gallons of cream is used each day in the cream and cheesecake selection. That’s a lot of cream cakes!!
Fratelli Authentic Italian Bakery opened on Commercial Drive by Marco Fratelli in 1997 — and gained widespread popularity soon after.
The family had immigrated from Vicenza in the Veneto area of Italy; initially, the bakery sold strictly Italian breads and pastries typical of the Veneto. However, over the years he has responded to his customer’s requests and widened the selection, introducing more North America recipes.
Joanne bought some freshly baked bread and we stopped to speak to Mario Fratelli who also had a warm, generous personality.
Marco is a first-generation Canadian. He never went to culinary school and never learned the art of baking in a formal way. Rather, he learned by standing at the side of his aunt since the age of twelve, following her methods and being groomed by her.
His first job was in his mother’s bakery and by the time he was twenty-three years old, he was ready to open Fratelli Bakery on Commercial Drive — quite audacious for a young baker. The street had good traffic and the baking was excellent. He’s since been welcomed into the neighborhood, supported by his Italian and Canadian neighbors who live close to the “The Drive” and those who are prepared to come from further away for his high-quality goods.
Baking is in the genes. Marco is hands-on in the bakery to this day, and his daughter is now the head baker at the Commercial Drive store with a small team under her.
Fratelli Brothers is well aware that the community has been very good in supporting them and in turn they are known to be very generous in giving back, donating to several charities, especially the Children’s Hospice.
There are a few tables on the sidewalk outside the bakery and it is an ideal spot to relax with a fresh pastry and a good cup of coffee – after you have bought some of their straight-out-of-the oven bread with its tantalizing aroma.
FRATELLI, Authentic Italian Baking.
1795 Commercial Drive,
Vancouver BC, Canada.
Hours: Monday 9.00 -a.m. – 4.00 p.m; Tuesday – Saturday 9.00 a.m. – 5.30 p.m.; Sunday 9.00 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.