In a modern take on the Italian tradition of tavola calda – a “hot table” of freshly prepared, ready-to-go or eat-on-the-spot meals – the restaurant-cum-pasticceria-cum-gelateria Bistro77 has been brightening up lunchtime for students, teachers and businesspeople in eastern San José’s Barrio Escalante for about a year. With a cosmopolitan menu that changes daily and includes a cornucopia of choices, Bistro77 posts each day’s menu on its website and on Twitter and Facebook, so lunchgoers can survey the offerings before heading over. This is tavola calda, which dates from Roman times, updated to cyberspeed.
I first spotted the restaurant en route to the dentist early one morning, when I was desperate for a pre-root-canal cup of fortifying coffee. The chic but casual glass-fronted café on the west side of the Farolito roundabout called to me as I drove by. Once inside, I was delighted to find not only a first-class espresso machine but also a showcase filled with homemade Italian biscotti and French-style macarons – pastel-pretty merengue cookies sandwiching rich cream fillings. Somebody here had obviously studied pastry making in France or Italy.
Enter Ricardo Ruiz, chef, pastry cook, gelato maker and friendly barista, who whipped up a perfect Italian-style cappuccino for me. Not one of those wussy, weak confections with three layers of coffee, milk and cream, but a cappuccino worthy of the Veneto, which is exactly where Ruiz learned how to make Italian biscotti – at various pastry shops in his grandparents’ hometown, near Vicenza. After wolfing down a plateful of cookies with my cappuccino, I was keen to return and sample Ruiz’s lunch fare.
Arriving at lunchtime one day soon after, I approached the glass-fronted “hot table” where Ruiz presides over all the day’s salads and savory dishes lined up in shiny silver serving plates. Although the concept is Italian, the fare is global. Lunch includes a main dish plus two sides and a fruit drink. Prices are ₡3,800-₡5800 ($7.60-$11.60), depending on your choice of main dish. What to choose? Ruiz gave a tour of the main dishes on offer, from low to higher price: a chicken-and-pasta bake or ziti pasta with mushrooms, peas and cream sauce; mushroom-stuffed beef au jus or slices of pork tenderloin; or, at the upper end, baked salmon or herbed trout fillets. I went with a mid-priced, perfectly cooked corvina fillet in a light and mildly spicy tomato, onion and spinach sauce.
The harder job was choosing from the array of interesting vegetable side dishes and salads, including a carrot, squash and broccoli mélange, an ayote pumpkin mix, rosemary-baked tiny potatoes, an arugula salad with chopped egg and crumbled cheese in a balsamic dressing, a mixed greens and tomato salad or, my choice, coleslaw with raisins and cucumber in a yogurt dressing. Vegetarians can choose three sides instead of one of the main courses and pay just ₡3,500 ($7).
On a return visit, looking for a light lunch in a hurry, I opted for a light and cheesy eggplant parmigiana made with thick slices of sautéed eggplant (with no breading) and a savory side dish of brilliantly green col, a curly kale, expertly cooked just to the pre-wilted stage.
Lots of clients in business suits take their lunch to go. But more customers walk up the two steps to the covered terrace decorated with paper lanterns, and take a seat at one of the shiny modern aluminum tables set with mauve place mats to wait for their chosen lunch to be brought on a tray. There’s also a small garden with two tables shaded by palm trees and umbrellas.
All the food and pastries, including elaborate birthday cakes, can be ordered to go on a grand scale. Ruiz says his catering service recreates the restaurant in your home or office. “Everything is cooked from scratch,” he says.
If you arrive too late for lunch but are feeling peckish, Bistro77 has delicate croissant sandwiches and tiny pizzas in the pastry case. After lunchtime, this is a perfect place to sit down with a heart-shaped bowl of gelato, whipped up on-site and displayed in an impressive Italian gelateria glass case. Choose from nutty nocciola or pistachio; fruity kiwi or lime; creamy panna cotta or cassata siciliana. I chose gianduja, the chocolate-and-hazelnut signature flavor of Perugina chocolates, served with a crispy almond cookie.
It may be Barrio Escalante outside, but inside it tastes like the Via Veneto.
Location: Barrio Escalante, 50 m west of the Farolito roundabout, two blocks north ofSanta Teresita Church.
Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.