Years ago, we tackled the whirlwind European tour with our four children. Home schooling at the time, so the itinerary was kid-chosen…with a teeny-tiny-eensy-weensy bit of help from mom. There was no way I was skipping my beloved Italy! We managed to carve out a meagre week to explore that delicious country. We stayed in a quaint Tuscan villa, overlooking an active vineyard beside a medieval village. FYI, when you are booking a trip and the agents assure you that everyone speaks English in Italy. They. Are. Lying. It was a hysterical game of point and nod as we gathered supplies from the nearby village of Sambuca. Choosing fresh pesto, prosciutto and gnocchi, along with some crusty bread and headily scented olives for our first lunch under a vine covered trellis. The perfect holiday, yes?
Yes perfect! Except that…we forgot to buy diapers. The next day was a Sunday, in rural Italy, no open farmacia’s. So, immediately after breakfast, we headed towards Sienna, the closest city. A simple jaunt on the highway, but we had time, why not take the back roads? Why not? Because driving the back roads in Tuscany is akin to solving a Rubic’s Cube…blindfolded. Needless to say, by lunch, we were completely disoriented. We were so lucky though. Magically, we’d accidentally stumbled upon the village of Castellina in Chianti, uhm…during a wine festival! Heaven. On. Earth. Oh, my friends, it gets better! The six of us scrambled into the closest restaurant on the main road through the village, Pizzaria Tre Porte. It wasn’t busy because we were a bit early for the Italian lunch crowd, we spread out around a beautiful old wooden table, pouring over the mouth watering menu. Then...it happened…time slowed down. I glanced towards the kitchen, the swinging doors burst open and the most incredibly beautiful man materialized. Dressed in waiter’s whites, brandishing a tray with a seasoned flourish, tossing his thick black mane and staring straight at me he approached our table. Leaning down closely, he looked deeply into my eyes and breathlessly asked me…
“Are these children all yours mama? Bella, bella famiglia, would you like some water?”
What children? I couldn’t speak…I had no words. This man had literally stolen my breath away. Yep, right there in front of my husband and four kids. Sheesh…humiliated much? Yes, I still blush brightly at the memory…but in that moment, that stunning young man represented everything Italian that I loved. The passion for food, zest for life and adoration of the famiglia.
Flash forward a few years, eight, to be exact. As I play tourist in the nearby Village of Coombs, I happily wander through the market, picking up a few gourmet treats, laugh at the silly goats peering down on me from their roof top perch and wander down past all the different shops filled with various gifts. Finally, I stroll through the gorgeous garden shop and head into Cuckoo’s Trattoria…mmm, it smells wonderful. You can NOT imagine my utter joy as I walked through the restaurant and discovered this…
I felt as though I’d been magically transported back to Tuscany! Everything about the surroundings brought the romance of Italy rushing back. The rustic wooden tables, the Italian music softening the background, the sun glistening through the plum trees overlooking the small valley. After basking in the sun during a delightful shared family lunch of flavourful antipasto, generous salads, an incredible sampling of hand stretched, traditional italian thin crust pizzas and impeccably chilled wine, I was far too full for dessert. However, my appetite for information had been piqued. Who was the person behind this extraordinary culinary experience?
Before an interview I usually jot down a few questions so I can guide the conversation somewhat. When I met with chef Fausto Bellicini, I didn’t even get the opportunity to glance at my list. I can’t really describe our meeting as an interview because he is a storyteller extraordinaire! Within moments I’d heard about his first visit to Canada, his experiences as a young chef and he’d enthusiastically shared the serendipitous story of how the owners of the Coombs Market had discovered him. Relocating from Vancouver, Fausto agreed to run a restaurant in the lovingly renovated old farmstead, but on his terms. Growing up in and training under his inspiring chef mentor in Northern Italy, Fausto is passionately dedicated to his homelands fare. “I told them I would come, but it would have to be an Italian restaurant.” Appears to be the perfect fit, the farmhouse has transformed into a stunning Villa, complete with wrought iron grates and creeping vines. Fausto prefers the description of “trattoria” over “restaurant”. In Italy, you can still look over the fields and spot a cluster of tractors, trattori, gathered in front of a single farmhouse. The farmers join each other for a simple meal, cooked fresh in the traditional style. This chef wants his visitors to feel the same. It’s a casual, welcoming gathering place to enjoy the food and enjoy each other. “It doesn’t need to be complicated!”
Chef’s favourite meals have always been the simplest ones. Bread broken, drenched in fine olive oil and enjoyed with fresh fruits and cheese. Growing up there was always fresh bread, fresh pasta, he shares that they are still his comfort foods. After Fausto read the book Wheat Belly, he actually “felt like killing the guys who altered the wheat!” referring to all the unhealthy genetic changes to the grain over the last decade. I have to agree…why mess with perfection? He appreciates simple food that he can make his own. The menu at Cuckoo’s is just that, beautifully rendered Italian foods with the finest products that Vancouver Island has to offer. Clearly, a fruitful combination because Cuckoo’s popularity has been steadily growing since the doors opened in April of 2011. The growth is so positive, they are already looking at expanding. The kitchen needs to stretch out in order to accommodate the increased demand. They are looking at the possibility of an outdoor pizza oven…oh yes please! And extending the seating to include…a vine covered trellised area. Ahhh, I won’t be able to stay away!
The name itself started as an “in joke”. Il Cucu is a favoured restaurant of the Bellicini family, back in Pisogne, Italy. Named after the cuckoo clocks in nearby Switzerland. When discussing a name one day Fausto’s wife jokingly suggested ‘Cuckoo’s’ and the owners loved it. Somehow it perfectly pulls together the whole idea of this restaurant; inspired by Italian roots, nestled in the wonderfully eclectic Coombs market and presented with a fun loving spirit! Chef Fausto does love to travel back to his home country to visit family. Admitting he sees it all through different eyes now. He grew up walking to school under some of the most beautiful ancient architecture, but never stopped to sincerely appreciate it. Much like the Vancouver Island folk, who regularly drive through our majestic Cathedral Grove…and never stop to wander the paths.
Gathering produce from nearby farms and having access to locally harvested seafood has given Chef the opportunity to work with ingredients that inspire him. Enthusiastically describing a favourite Qualicum farmer he said “you can taste the sun on his tomatoes, you don’t need to hide that flavour!” (imagine that in an Italian accent…yeah it’s cool). There are no dried herbs in their kitchen and the flats of fresh basil on display are in use throughout the day. A quick tour of the tiny kitchen demonstrated that everything is indeed, made to order. The racks of pasta, prepared early that morning across from the bin of newly picked chanterelle mushrooms, had my mouth watering as chef described their seasonally inspired special of the day. Fortunately, I was invited to stay and sample some lunch…sometimes I just have to “suffer” for my job.
Spoiled with an appetizer of Fausto’s meatballs, followed up with a chanterelle, basil pizza made just for me, the tastes were overwhelming! Honestly, my friends, maybe I wasn’t meant to be a food blogger because I’ve run out of appropriate food adjectives. I’ll just tell you that everything was amazing. Simply clean recipes, fresh ingredients and a personal twist from a chef who is as passionate about his food as the people he shares it with. Someday you might run into him at the
restaurant trattoria, as he’s often out front hosting. Ask him about his story…he’ll tell you! A charming and sentimental gentleman, one who keeps that old email with directions leading him to his first visit to Coombs, posted in his office. The magic behind Cuckoo’s is this…Fausto doesn’t feel he’s in the “restaurant business”, he understands he is here to share an experience. For each guest to walk in and feel a part of something special. Every meal is truly a celebration. A celebration of wholesome food. A celebration of wonderful people. A celebration of a life worth living. I’m still hoping that one day I’ll walk in there and Fausto will have tracked down that lovely Italian waiter for me, but until then, I’ll keep going back just to experience la Dolce Vita at Cuckoo’s in Coombs.
2326 Alberni Highway, Coombs, BC V0R 1M0
“I wouldn’t use it to wash my cutting board”
~Chef Fausto, describing a particularly unpleasant wine (NOT served at Cuckoo’s)