Connections through food, friends, and family lead the way to a comforting Italian feast

It’s one of those mid-October nights — the kind that continually surprises you with how early the sun is setting, how cold the air is getting, and how – suddenly –  a warmer jacket is needed. In a blink, the summer slipped into fall, and the fall turned into a reminder of what is to come. It’s the kind of night when finding warm refuge at a cozy neighbourhood joint is exactly what is needed. When I head into Mappatura Bistro, I find just that. The intimate atrium space is warm, glowing with soft lighting, and humming with conversation. It’s the kind of pleasant, fuzzy vibe that completely draws you in; and the food, drink and service are a perfect fit. And the smells — oh, the smells.

“I feel that the Italian experience is one that everybody can relate to. There’s something comforting about it,” says Simone Mombourquette. She and partner Terry Vassallo opened Mappatura in November 2016, after working (mostly) together in restaurants for the past 20 years. Vassallo, an accomplished chef, and Mombourquette, an expert in front of house hospitality, have drawn from professional experiences and personal travels to conceptualize Mappatura. Their last two gigs before becoming business owners were running Italian restaurants — Trattoria Della Nonna in Lunenburg, followed by Cafe Chianti in downtown Halifax. “That comforting, welcoming experience that you imagine you’d get if you went to a nice little trattoria in Italy,” says Mombourquette, “we’re just trying to bring that to people.”

It certainly feels like a neighbourhood affair when I walk through the door on a Thursday night. I’m greeted by Mombourquette, and the crowd looks entirely local, relaxed, and familiar. As an aperitivo, I order a Negroni — my favourite, and a classic — with the knowledge that Mombourquette has recently made her own vermouth and is using it, as requested, in delicious Italian-inspired cocktails. A Negroni is equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth, the vermouth provides the required sweetness in the flavour, and roundness in mouthfeel, to counterbalance the intense bitterness of the Campari and high alcohol content of the gin. Her house-made vermouth lives up to the task. Served with a proper fragrant orange peel garnish, on the rocks, in a heavy-bottomed crystal glass, it is a great sign and a magnificent start to a hearty Italian feast.

There’s no way I can’t order burrata when I see it on a menu at an Italian restaurant. A shell of solid, mozzarella cheese filled with stracciatella and cream? Come on. Vassallo is excited to talk about sourcing Italian cheese from local cheesemaker Ciro Comencini, who grew up near Verona, Italy, making cheese with his family. Now Nova Scotia (and its chefs) are lucky to have him. Vassallo serves burrata simply, the way I prefer it, with just a few complementary accoutrements: savoury and sweet oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, balsamic and sage vinaigrette, peppery arugula, and a few crispy pieces of prosciutto. I also have my sights set on the arancini, two balls of leek and goat cheese risotto, lightly breaded and fried crispy, served with a splash of balsamic vinegar, on top of a flavourful green goddess aioli. These along with warm, spiced olives, and house-made focaccia make for an encouraging first course.

“Culinary wise, I really feel like I found my soul at Trattoria Della Nonna,” says Vassallo, whose father is from Malta, an island country close to Sicily. “I’ve always been interested in bistro cooking.” The connection to Italian and Maltese food along with memories of travelling in Italy pushed the couple to create this experience in the Spring Garden Road neighbourhood. The menu at Mappatura doesn’t strictly adhere to any one region in Italy, and they try always to keep something Maltese in the offering.

When the Negroni runs dry, I go with a recommended French Sauvignon Blanc, which is bright and acidic, and easy to drink with a variety of dishes. Mombourquette curates her wine list to match the food, but due to limited storage switches it up regularly. “Our philosophy around wine is: I don’t like the wine to topple over the dish,” says Mombourquette, who focuses on organic and biodynamic wines when she can, and food-friendly styles. “[The wine is] going to work itself right in between the layers of the food experience.”

For my main course I order the house-made tagliatelle, which is done as a Cacio e Pepe, but with grilled scallops, wild prawns, and topped with grated pecorino, thinly sliced fresh peas, and mint. Cacio e Pepe is a popular dish from Rome that translates to “cheese and pepper,” and is traditionally very minimalistic, ingredients-wise. I like Vassallo’s idea to brighten it up with the crunchy, juicy shredded peas, and mint. The prawns are cooked flawlessly, and the sweet-yet-rich scallops are stunning. The seafood manages to shine through everything else going on.

I’m beginning to get that sleepy feeling – the ambience is so cozy. The restaurant is now completely full, with multiple conversations happening at once – creating soothing white noise. It’s warm and romantic. But I know I need to get dessert. Luckily I’ve got a date to split one with me. While the menu does have familiar Italian classics like tiramisu and affogato, I need something a little brighter, so I go with the lemon tart. Also, grappa.

“At the end [of a meal], that digestivo, just kind of takes that full feeling away from you,” says Vassallo. “We made a commitment, we have a neat little program with our aperitivos and our digestivos.” The menu does offer an explanation and tasting notes on offerings of both, and I am a believer in how they enhance the pre and post eating experience — especially in helping to leave the meal not feeling uncomfortable.

I go with the Il Friulano di Nonino grappa. It’s not my first foray into grappa, and I know it’s going to be intense — but the size of the lemon tart that arrived at the table is even more intense. The pastry itself is as big as a cupcake and full of lemon curd. Topped with more than a generous mound of meringue that’s been torched, and garnished with daintily halved berries. The pastry shell is thin and delicate – beautifully airy and light. The fiery grappa is much needed and helps finish the meal feeling full, yet refreshed.

“Mappatura loosely translated is mapping,” says Vassallo during our chat. He and Mombourquette feel that the connections they’ve made and paths they’ve followed have led them here, and they’re excited to see what’s next. There’s a parallel in their stories and what’s happening at Mappatura — the dining experience is well mapped out, and if customers play along, they’ll have that comforting, Italian bistro experience and leave feeling warm, happy and satisfied — just what Vassallo and Mombourquette intend.