Hot Spot - Il Caminetto

Experience a Taste of La Dolce Vita

It was baptism by fire — or, more precisely, the warm glow of a modern, marble-clad, gas-burning fireplace.

The new Il Caminetto opened on Dec. 28, 2017, in the middle of the Christmas rush, Whistler’s busiest time of year. By midnight on New Year’s Eve, diners were dancing in a conga line around the restaurant.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had something new in the Village of this size,” says Restaurant Director Darin Newton. “Some people, especially those who have been coming here since the ’80s, see it as a rebirth.”

Il Caminetto, which really does mean fireplace in Italian, is one of Whistler’s most famous restaurants. And while it didn’t exactly rise from the ashes, the 150-seat restaurant, now under new ownership, was stripped back to bare boards and concrete during an extensive renovation that transformed the cozily tufted dining room into a sleek, airy, city-style hot spot — complete with its first fireplace, a custom Montigo that occupies a place of pride in the swanky lounge.

The original Il Caminetto was founded in 1981 by Umberto Menghi, a legendary Tuscan chef who set the bar for fine Italian dining in Canada and once presided over a small empire of restaurants that stretched all the way to Pisa. He still owns Il Giardino in Vancouver and Trattoria di Umberto in Whistler.

After years of courting offers from prospective buyers, Menghi finally handed Il Caminetto over to the Toptable Group, which belongs to another rather famous Italian-Canadian family (the Aquilinis, best known for their ownership of the Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Arena).

“This was a very hard decision,” Menghi said when the sale was announced. “We all have so many wonderful memories bound up in this restaurant — from the nights when my friend Tom Jones would thrill dinner guests by breaking into song, to something as simple as hosting out-of-town regulars celebrating a special birthday.”

Those regulars are in good hands. The Toptable Group is a company whose history in Whistler goes back just as far Menghi’s. Araxi, widely recognized as one of the country’s best, opened the same year as Il Caminetto. The restaurant group also owns Bar Oso and The Cellar by Araxi.

Executive Chef James Walt, who also oversees the food programs at the Toptable’s other three Whistler restaurants, is extremely passionate about Italian cuisine, having spent one year of sabbatical, in 2004, as head chef at the Canadian Consulate in Rome.

The new position completes a full circle for Walt. When he started at Araxi in 1997, he was charged with changing the concept from Italian to local and seasonal. At Il Caminetto, he is now incorporating fresh, local vegetables, meats and fish into a traditional Italian repertoire that spans the country’s diverse regional cuisines and leans heavily on imported ingredients for authenticity — high-quality olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes and big wheels of cheese.

“We’re trying to keep the food bright and contemporary,” he says, pointing to a square of pounded salmon crudo, plated as artistically as a still life, with colourful pops of porcini emulsion, trout roe, reindeer moss, wood sorrel and edible marigolds.

True to Italian traditions, or at least the south of Italy, the food is more aggressively seasoned than the dishes he created for Araxi. “We’re using more chilies and big, bold flavours like anchovies and bottarga,” Walt explains.

At Araxi, for example, a carrot tastes like a carrot. At Il Caminetto, those farm-fresh carrots are simmered into lush minestrone, deep and savoury with generous gratings of earthy Pecorino. Asparagus salad with pork jowl is sharpened by green-garlic purée and a spicy Parmesan-crumbed, sous-vide egg. Pan-seared halibut is richly coddled with creamy clam velouté and thick tomato fondue.

And of course there is pasta, lots of pasta, all made in-house with a state-of-art extruding machine. The kitchen also bakes all its own bread in great, big quantities thanks to a spiral mixer, and churns its own creamy gelato in a high-tech Bravo machine that turns fruit from fresh to frozen in a matter of minutes.

“I don’t want to say it has re-engaged me, because I’ve always been good at trying new things and staying current,” Walt says. “But when you do a project like this, you have to change and take new approaches. It definitely gets the juices going again.”

Speaking of juice, there is a deep well of the grape-fermented variety to drink from. An extensive, Italian-focused wine cellar includes all the prize-winning heavyweights (from Gaja to Sassicaia) on the reserve list. But there are also plenty of approachable labels for less than $80. Start the night by breaking into the Negroni Vault, which includes 12 new spins on the classic cocktail, and finish with a shot of grappa (there are more than 50 brands on the menu).

The room’s slick redesign, appointed with shimmering sheers, mid-century modern chairs and more than 25 styles of sexy lighting, comes courtesy of New York’s Rockwell Group, which has previously designed rooms for Alain Ducasse and Nobu.

To take full advantage of Whistler’s outdoor lifestyle, the lounge has been fitted with accordion-style doors, which will fold wide open onto a large patio during the summer months.

Located smack dab in the centre of the Village Stroll, the new Il Caminetto is lighting the Whistler dining scene on fire. Here’s hoping Tom Jones will come back to lead the conga line.

604-932-4442 |

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