Vaasa, Finland: its ruins, its pizza, its gelato

We continue the series that is mostly here to do English language restaurant commentary on things that don’t have a lot of English language reviews/commentary. Proper restaurant reviews require multiple visits, which we could not do for obvious reasons. But we could have benefited by having something in English that said something about where to get lunch in a given city, at least what kind of food a restaurant had.

Vasa/Vaasa (depending on whether you use the Swedish or the Finnish spelling–and it’s a bilingual city in a bilingual country, so the answer is not obvious) was not a planned stop on our trip. It was a lunch stop. We needed to stop somewhere between Turku and Oulu for lunch, and Vasa was timed perfectly. I saw a sign reading, “Gamla Vasa/Vanha Vaasa.” I said to Tim, “Gamla means old. Gamla Stan in Stockholm is full of little boutiques and restaurants and things. Turn here, maybe we can get lunch here.” (You can learn bits of Finnish by knowing bits of Swedish: Vanha also means old. Useful in the less overtly bilingual parts of Finland.)

Gamla Vasa was nothing like Gamla Stan. Gamla Vasa is the 19th century burnt out ruin of a 17th century city. It’s almost completely unprotected, so you can wander right up to the ruins and look at them intently. Finnish people were out walking their dogs among the ruins of their previous city. It burned under Russian rule. Vasa was a thorn in the Russians’ side during the wars, so when it burned, they weren’t the least bit upset; they attempted to name the rebuilt city after the tsar. That didn’t stick for five minutes after independence, and the Finns went back to calling their city Vasa. Even apart from being able to wander gorgeous ruins, it’s a lovely place, with attention to detail even on the water tower. The harbor building, the new church, the statues, everything. I would so happily go back to Vasa for more time. Vasa! Why not? Vasa! We didn’t know you’d be great, and there you were, Vasa!

But I was going to tell you where to eat. Right. Pizzeria Marco Polo is at Hovioikeudenpuistikko 11, and it is lovely. Just lovely. It appears to be run by a family from Naples. The vegetable toppings and the sausages for the pizzas and calzones are all incredibly fresh and beautifully handled–the charred eggplant and the artichokes and the mushrooms were beautiful. The cheese and the sauce were sublime. And the crust! Quite often if you get this type of pizza crust in the US, it is incomprehensible to me, because the outside is burnt and the inside is soggy. Who wants it? Why? But this. The outside was crispy, the inside was tender. Oh. Oh. That’s why. Also, the chef was sensible enough not to make the pizza crust and the calzone crust from the same dough. The calzone wanted a completely different dough, flaky, tender, but much thicker than the pizza. It was one of those meals where most of the conversation is, “This is so good. Here, taste mine, it’s so good.”

We looked at each other after eating these lovely lunches, and we said, “We have to try the gelato this person makes.” It was May when we were there, berry season, and the strawberry was lovely, utterly fresh strawberries. But the blueberry was the real perfection: the slightly gritty-bitter-sour peel flavor that comes from real blueberries, that is the utter opposite of artificial blueberry flavoring. So great, so great.

Probably there are other good places to eat in Vasa, and if this was your only chance at real Finnish food, you should go find it somewhere, for sure, because Finnish food is worth eating. But how would you get to Vasa without going somewhere else in Finland first? (Well. On the ferry from Umeå maybe. But probably not just for lunch.) So unless there’s some reason this needs to be a genuine Finnish meal, get your real Finnish food somewhere else and do what real Finns do and let the Neapolitans make you beautiful, beautiful pizza and gelato.

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