Italy, With a Touch of France and a Pinch of Spain
PUBLICATION: The Beach Times, Costa Rica, print edition
Anchored in the blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea and set beneath the pyroclastic eyes of Mount Etna, lies the aging island of Sicily.
The sovereign Italian region—famed for its poetry and painted wooden carts—was first colonized in the eighth century by ancient Phoenicians and Greeks. As cultural mariners like the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spanish drifted through the Mediterranean, each left its culinary mark.
In the capital of Palmero, Arab and French influences have historically reigned, with an abundance of mint and pine nuts gracing their plates. The eastern region of Catania, in contrast, is stamped by a blend of Greek vegetables, fish, and oils.
It is from this latter expanse that Gea Catalano brings her new delicatessen.
“Our food is a mix of French, Italian, Norman, Spanish and Arabic,” Catalano says of her hometown. “All the people that came to Sicily left something. It’s a melting pot.”
Buon Appetito, she says, which she opened in Playa Tamarindo with her husband last August, offers up Sicilian specialties like grilled bruschetta, served hot with a tomato, basil and oil paste.
The sweet-tasting bread, she says, can also be eaten with Nutella or gelato, or spread with meats and cheeses.
Unlike in the North, the café owner continues, southern Italy is hallmarked by Mediterranean flavors. Sicily makes rice like Spain’s paella, for example, and both Sardinia and Naples abound with Arabic couscous.
“The North they use a lot of pasta –it’s creamier, more French,” she says. “We use oil, a lot of vegetables.”
The Playa Tamarindo eatery features sandwiches with grilled zucchini, eggplant, and peppers; tuna and chicken melts; traditional pizzas and caprese salads; and a handful of pastas in pesto or white sauce. She says the former is one of her personal favorites.
The Catalanos opened up Buon Appetito August of last year, and have been bringing a melting pot of Sicilian, French, Italian, Spanish, Norman and Arabic flare to their restaurant ever since.
The idea of quality food, according to Ms Catalano, is to fill the diner without leaving a feeling of heaviness. She says everything in the deli is made fresh and, in addition to lunch, they serve light breakfasts like bagels and egg sandwiches.
The breads and sauces are homemade, including the pizzas, which she says are unique: whereas most are labeled either thick or thin-crusted, she says her pizzas are crunchy on the bottom with a soft, doughy middle.
Catalano says the crunchy base is “super-Italian.”
The sandwich bread has a spring water base and is similar to a plain ciabatta, although the restaurateur says she wants to make potato, onion, and olive-flavored selections down the road.
In addition to sit-down meals, the brightly-colored café also sells hard-to-find meats to-go like mortadella, San Daniele, and coppa, and cheeses like asiago, gorgonzola, and fresh mozzarella.
The café owner, who also owns clothing boutique across the street, says when she and her husband moved to Costa Rica four years ago they were hungry for good food and found few options.
“We are food maniacs in the sense we don’t eat just to fill the stomach but to eat like a religion,” she says.
She says part of the inspiration was to add selection to Playa Tamarindo’s plate. The beachfront café also has a coffee bar where Catalano acts as an amateur barista.
She says Costa Rican coffee is excellent but is sometimes not made to maximize its flavor. One of the keys, she says, is having quality machinery that grinds beans as they are brewed rather than beforehand.
Additionally, a first-rate cup of coffee requires maximum grind quantity to ensure the richness and texture comes through. She says extra strong coffee is another trademark of southern Italy.
“A good coffee is very tasty, with the natural cream of the coffee on the top,” she says, pointing to her creation. “This is the perfect base to make iced coffee.
“I use the Costa Rican coffee because the Costa Rican is really tasty. I’m from the south and I like the coffee really strong.”
Her cappuccinos are made with lot of foam and she says she already has “addicts.”
“If you don’t like coffee, you will never make a good coffee,” she says. “It’s like that with everything. You need passion.”
The deli, enshrouded in bright orange and green colors, also serves ice cream from Playa Potrero’s 0039 Italian heladería and smoothies with fresh fruit, depending upon the season. She says the color scheme was designed to invoke a light, feel-good energy.
So far, the setting has proved successful for the Sicilian expatriate.
She says a steady base of Italian regulars frequent the café — coming in, perhaps, for a taste of back home — and a growing North American clientele, with customers often asking her for recommendations.
Catalano says personal attention is one of her delicatessen’s distinguishing marks.
“I believe the best publicity you can make is word of mouth,” she says. “We are taking care of every single person that comes in. We believe in good food, good service and good setting. I can understand what they want and give it to them.”
This article was originally published in The Beach Times newspaper. Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Photo with permission by Pixabay.