– Story by Gail Johnson Photography by Lia Crowe
Restaurants come and go, and then there are those that, like a fine wine, only get better with age. Giuseppe “Pino” Posteraro opened Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca in Yaletown in 1999, and it’s been on all the “best” lists ever since, including the best Italian restaurants outside Italy by 50 Top Italy—and that was before its recent $2 million renovation.
Big names have dined at Cioppino’s over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Bono, George Lucas, Jennifer Aniston and Al Pacino. Elvis Costello and Henrik Sedin are local fans. To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, Pino cooked for the Italian president at the top of Grouse Mountain.
In response to the pandemic, the legendary chef has been rolling with the restrictions; he started doing takeout, posting family-style menus on social media in the morning and regularly selling out by 4 pm. Other chefs refer to him as the master. All this from a father of four of humble beginnings who nearly didn’t pursue cooking at all. His success comes down to his passion.
“I cook every single day,” Pino says. “I love it. When I’m not cooking at the restaurant, I cook at home. It’s inside my veins.”
He adds, “Being a successful restaurateur and chef doesn’t mean being on TV every day. It’s doing your job day in, day out, trying to be the best you can be as a human being, and being loyal to people.”
Pino grew up in Lago, a rural area in Italy’s Calabria region, in a family of eight. His mother was the only daughter of a baron; as a young woman, she was sent to study with professional chefs in Naples and Rome—not to become a chef herself but to acquire skills for the day she would have a family.
Although though their family was not wealthy, Pino says, they ate extremely well.
“My mother knew how to turn the simplest of ingredients into a masterpiece,” he says. “She would take plain items and make something delicious.”
He began helping his mom in the kitchen before grade school. They had a garden, chickens and pigs. Pino recalls the celebratory ritual of the pig slaughter, always on a Friday. His mom would use the blood to make pudding with chocolate and pine nuts. They would clean the pig in the river then stuff it with peppers that the family had cured a year before. Together, they would slice the meat by hand, using different cuts for various purposes: some for sausage, others for soppressata, capicola and prosciutto. This was true head-to-tail dining; there was no such thing as food waste.
Although he loved everything about food—growing, harvesting, preparing, and cooking—Pino nearly became a doctor. He spent two years in Sicily attending medical school. What changed his mind was working with people who were very sick; he found it too heartbreaking—he wanted to see people happy.
Food was the way to do that. He worked at Michelin-star restaurants around the world and taught at George Brown College, before making his way to Vancouver via Toronto.
More than a way to bring happiness to people, food is a way to share his culture. For this, Pino has been named a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy, an award designated by Italy’s president. The knighthood recognizes individuals who promote Italian prestige and relations internationally. Pino received the distinction in 2018, the first chef in Canada to do so.
“I never thought I’d receive this award for doing what I do every day,” Pino says. “At the end of the day we are cooks, but if we promote Italian technique and traditions in Canada, it’s an accomplishment. For more than 30 years, my motivation has been to promote Italian culture to the local community, introducing Italian gastronomy to a new generation of Canadians.”
Pino is extremely particular about the ingredients he uses, with a demand for perfection that results in consistently superior dishes.
The chef prioritizes local foods such as sustainable wild Pacific salmon, buffalo mozzarella from Vancouver Island, veal from the Fraser Valley and fruit and vegetables grown on nearby farms. He also imports speciality items from Italy that are ethically produced by small artisans, such as saffron from Calabria, Sardinia and Abruzzo.
He won’t use foods with preservatives or genetically modified ingredients. He makes all of his own salami and other types of charcuterie, such as organic air-dried bresaola, from scratch. Pino brings in organic pigs from Salt Spring Island and Chilliwack, slicing them by hand, never by machine. He has the seasoning down to an exact science. Making fresh pasta is his go-to if he’s having a bad day.
It’s not just cooking Pino has mastered; he also knows as much about wine as many top sommeliers. He personally creates the wine list at Cioppino’s, which has a collection of approximately 45,000 bottles, including many hard-to-find and rare vintages. Part of the restaurant’s recent overhaul, which saw a dividing wall come down making the entire room more open and airier, was the addition of a spectacular central bar complete with a 50-bottle, temperature-controlled, by-the-glass wine dispenser and preservation system.
The chef also brought in two state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line ovens from Germany, and the new patio is an urban oasis that his wife helped design, with greenery like golden and Irish yews.
Whether he’s boxing freshly made lasagne to go (the same kind he enjoyed on Sundays with his family in Italy) or serving celebrities at safe physical distances, Pino is at home in the kitchen. Italian Heritage Month in June is significant to him: “It means reinforcing a strong tie with the motherland and bringing it to a wider public attention,” he says.
It all goes back to his singular mission.
“You do it because it’s a passion,” he says, “a passion for food and cooking and for people.”