Some restaurants seem to be like plants – they propagate. A good example is the recently opened Italian trattoria La Gatta Ci Cova (literally, “the female cat is brooding here”), across from Playa Cocles, about three kilometers south of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. The roadside eatery is the little sister of six-year-old La Pecora Nera (“the black sheep”) restaurant, a first address for lovers of refined Italian cuisine on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast.
“‘La gatta ci cova’ is an idiomatic Italian expression meaning that there is something fishy going on,” owner-chef Ilario Giannoni explains. “As I was looking for a name for my new restaurant, my mother came up with it.
I especially like the expression, since (a similar one) is used in the Spanish language.”
(“Hay gato encerrado,” literally, “There’s a cat locked up,” is the Spanish equivalent.) Giannoni hails from the western Italian seaport of Livorno in Tuscany. Growing up in the centuries-old cultural landscape of his native region in Italy, he especially enjoyed family gatherings in the countryside, where his grandmother owned a weekend house.
He loved to assist her in the kitchen and was mesmerized by observing how fruits and vegetables grow. In spring, he picked the first fresh herbs and watched the farmers cut asparagus.He learned how to prepare pheasants and collected mushrooms in the fall.
“In Italy, there is a lot of tradition,” Giannoni says. “The changing of the seasons dictates the variety of the ingredients.”
At the age of 12, Giannoni knew he wanted to become a chef and later studied at a hotel management school in Livorno to pursue his talent. He also trained in the catering business, worked in four-star hotels in Italy and three years in France.
“A good chef has to have a lot of sensitivity and spirit of observation for the smallest details,” he explains. “In the kitchen, one has to work seriously with a lot of discipline and perfectionism.”
New Culinary Enterprise
After successfully running the highly praised La Pecora Nera for six years, Giannoni branched out in August, opening the rustic La Gatta Ci Cova trattoria around the corner from his renowned restaurant. At the new, open-air eatery, he and his team offer freshly made starters, irresistible homemade panini, pizza and pasta, as well as a special of the day.
Upon arriving at La Gatta Ci Cova, guests are welcomed by the sound of a lively fountain that adorns the garden surrounding the eatery. An eye-catching mascot, a black, soft, toy cat, is majestically stretched out on one of the roofs of the two-story building. The open design of the wooden structure allows for views across the adjoining coastal road, or for conversations with other visitors who cannot resist taking pictures of the original mascot. Blue chairs and red tables, tropical flower arrangements and photographs of Italian movies such as “La Dolce Vita” add to the leisurely feeling of the place.
The service is attentive and friendly, and you can order from the menu or opt for the plate of the day, including an appetizer, a main dish and a drink for ¢5,000 ($9.60).
On the day of my visit, Giannoni offered Parmesan-seasoned fried rice balls with vegetable salad, followed by excellent homemade fettuccini in a savory tomato sauce.
The menu features four different kinds of appetizers, of which the potato croquettes filled with mozzarella cheese are a delicious surprise (¢3,500/$6.70).
In Italy, sandwiches are called panini, and at Giannoni’s trattoria they are fresh, large and generously spread with roast beef, chicken, fried pork or fish, topped with zucchini and olive mayonnaise (¢2,700/$5.20).
The large pizzas range from ¢3,000-4,800 ($5.80-9.20), and include the classic Margherita and Quattro Stagioni, topped with ham, mushrooms, olives and artichoke hearts. One especially rich choice is made with four cheeses, nuts and slices of pear.
The pasta recipe is a favorite of Giannoni’s grandmother, who served spaghetti in tomato sauce seasoned with garlic and sage (¢3,200/$6.20). Accompany it with a glass of house wine for ¢1,300 ($2.50).
If you feel like spoiling yourself with dessert, the trattoria offers chocolate mousse and panna cotta (Italian custard) for ¢1,800 ($3.50); on weekends, Giannoni and his team add more creations to the menu, such as cakes and homemade ice cream.
Where It All Started
The six-year success story of La Pecora Nera, Giannoni’s original undertaking, can be attributed to the chef ’s inexhaustible imagination, dedication to the highest quality standards and preference for frill-free presentation.
Travel writer, journalist and poet Eliot Greenspan, whose new Tico Times “Restaurant Guide to Costa Rica” will be out next month, considers Giannoni an artist, and reviews La Pecora Nera as “one of the best restaurants in the country.”
Housing nine tables, the restaurant is spacious and appealing. The menu reflects the modern virtues of freshness and originality, emphasizing fish, seafood and pasta dishes.
The multilingual Giannoni and his Costa Rican partner, Siany Thomas, come to the table not only to take orders, but also to explain the preparations, awakening the taste buds of their international clientele.
The menu lists half a dozen starters. A must-try is the innovative star fruit carpaccio with shrimp seasoned with onion, parsley and tomato (¢5,000/$9.60). Another tongue pleaser is the tender, disk-shaped pumpkin ravioli (¢6,000/$11.50).
Main dishes include grilled marlin fillet prepared with marinated carrots, capers, celery, bell peppers and tomatoes (¢7,000/ $13.50). Carnivores will not be disappointed with the juicy fillet steak with blue cheese (¢9,500/$18.30). The portions are generous, and three different kinds of bread are served with the first order.
The wine list features Chilean and Italian varieties, a glass of house wine costs ¢1,800 ($3.50).
The panna cotta emerging from Giannoni’s kitchen is a delight to the palate (¢2,000/ $3.80). La Pecora Nera is the only place I know in the country where this delicious dessert has an authentic, custard-like consistency and is not thickened with gelatin.
Prices listed for both restaurants do not include 10% service.
To get there, follow the coastal road from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo for about three kilometers. La Gatta Ci Cova is in Cocles, 20 meters past the entrance to La Casa Camarona, on the right. The trattoria is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
For information, call 750-0730.
To get to La Pecora Nera, turn right immediately after the trattoria and follow the cul-de-sac to the very end (about 100 meters) for direct access to the restaurant’s parking area. La Pecora Nera is open Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Reservations are suggested; call 750-0490.