Mappatura Bistro 5883 Spring Garden Road
The map that led Terry Vassallo and Simone Mombourquette to Spring Garden Road has had a few twists and turns. Their path included a six-year stop in Lunenburg to run the front and back of house at the beloved Trattoria della Nonna, and a handful of years at Cafe Chianti on Barrington Street. Now they have finally reached what feels like a final destination on Spring Garden Road: Mappatura.
"Mappatura" is the Italian word for mapping, and the restaurant is striving to live up to its name, creating relationships between places, flavours and ideas. The obvious connection is in the food, the pairing of Nova Scotia flavours and Mediterranean recipes, but in the space and through the menu they are also mapping connections between rustic and modern, simplicity and modishness.
It is refreshing to see an Italian-inspired bistro that doesn't feel bound by fusty traditionalism, Disneyland-ish cultural theme decor or bland, mid-range fanciness. There is a real sense of exuberance and individuality in the Mappatura dining room—it manages to capture the nebulous and sometimes untouchable idea of being fun.
A communal table cuts a long, lean curve through the small space, which some—especially those who liked a good brunch, which Mappatura also offers—might remember as the sunroom portion of Saege's old dining room. Not a lick of space is wasted, but the huge windows keep it from feeling cramped. Those same windows, though, mean it can get a bit noisy.
The floor is an Escher-like tessellation, a perfectly eye-bending foundation for room decor that feels light-hearted and even mischievous; there are vintage-inspired drawings, comic book elements and what feel like personal—and sometimes Italian—touches in the artwork. There is a rabbit mask that, combined with the floor, makes it feel like Labyrinth might be a favourite pop culture touchstone. White slat walls and light wood tables and seats keep it bright, while cushiony banquettes make every seat a comfortable one. A pop of neon glows in a corner and a tiny rainbow of globe string lights run along the top of the room. There is a lot of personality packed into the small space.
The menu features a host of homey Italian flavours—Milanese, Silcian, Roman, Bolognese—and dishes like chicken saltimbocca, that are obvious intersections of Italian flavours and Canadian tastes. The combination of approachable food and reasonable prices (only climbing over $30 when you have a dozen oysters on a plate) is a good one.
Old world wines are rightly the main focus of the beverage program, not to say there isn't any diversity of choice. I order the house red ($8), Itynera Nero d'Avola, a mellow Sicilian cabernet sauvignon, lightly spicy with a smooth berry notes. There are also Italian apéritifs, digestifs and beer, and the small list of cocktails and spritzes is evocative of every one of my Italian vacations. The only thing missing is Chinotto.
After a few sips of wine, our server checks in to see if we have any questions: I ask for a suggestion from the pasta menu, noting my intent to order Vassallo's calamari, which history has shown me not to skip. She notes my ambivalence towards doubling up on red sauces, and tells me that the customer favourite has been the carbonara, but the overwhelming staff preference is for the ravioli—one of a handful of housemade pasta dishes—which has a cream sauce flavoured with the braising liquid from veal osso buco.
Vassallo has long made the best calamari in the city. It is not peerless—Efendy's perfectly crisp rings, served with haydari instead of a chili sauce, is equally great—but at Mappatura he is still at the top of his game. The fried squid ($10) is in a messy pile, fried rings tossed in tomato sauce, topped with a frizzle of shaved green onion. The rings are supple, the batter is light and crisp, flecked with pepper. The sauce, dotted with salty black olives and vinegary teardrop peppers, tingles with heat.
There is a real sense of exuberance and individuality in the Mappatura dining room; it manages to capture the nebulous and sometimes untouchable idea of being fun.
My friend Megan has opted for warm roots ($13), a salad with silky roasted beets and cubes of robust sweet potato, crumbles of goat cheese and an earthy hazelnut vinaigrette. We both agree that the raw pear on top would be better if it had the honey notes that can be coaxed out by a light roast, but it's a lovely dish.
Service is attentive and incredibly friendly. Servers weave their way around the communal table, constantly refilling glasses and making sure patrons are happy. Ours checks in on us often, never obsequious but always observant, and when she clears our plates and sees the last drops in my wine glass, offers a refill.
She offers a thoughtful suggestion for wine with the ravioli, the Aquinas Pinot Noir Napa Valley ($13). It's quite luscious compared to the cabernet, with a pretty round flavour, a bit more intense in its cherry sweetness. It is quite drinkable on its own and does pair nicely with the dish.
The ravioli ($24) is rich. Not just Oprah rich, Bill Gates rich. The sauce is heavily creamy and sings with that singular deep meatiness that marrow bones give to osso buco. The squash and ricotta cloud inside the ravioli is much more delicate, but isn't totally lost to the sauce. I could have used a bit more of bright zestiness in the sprinkle of orange gremolata on top if only because Gates is a bit too rich for my blood.
Megan's pan-seared scallops ($25) are a generous portion of beautifully browned scallops, served with balsamic onion jus. The salt cod and turnip risotto, just loose enough, is creamy, salty and earthy. It is served with some broccolini on the side. And let's get to the broccolini ($7).
Even with the stalks plated with her meal, Megan can't resist digging into the separate side dish, which is, in a word, perfect. There is a slight bite from chiles and a dusting of parmesan, but there is a lemony flavour that is dog star bright. It absolutely sings. If Mappatura only served this dish I would go back time and time again.
We finish with profiteroles ($10), crisp and airy choux pastry balls filled with a creamy vanilla bean gelato and drizzled with chocolate sauce, and a huge lemon tart ($10) topped with whipped cream and a light, crispy meringue cookie. Our server is prompt with the bill without rushing us out into the street.
The last decade has seen Vassallo and Mombourquette solidly working, quietly great. As small as Halifax is, it can be easy to be unsung in this city. Mappatura makes it clear, though, that they deserve an aria or two when it comes to bringing the flavours and feelings of Italy to Halifax. They are officially on the map.