Although located across from Horton Plaza’s shopping metropolis, at the very pulse of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, Operacaffe has excised an oasis of Italian warmth and hospitality from its harried surroundings. The husband and wife team of Chefs Roberto Bernadoni and Patrizia Branchi have carefully crafted Operacaffe as a reimagined Tavola Calda, elevating this traditionally casual and inexpensive restaurant concept from its lowly position on the Italian fine dining hierarchy to the heights of epicurean refinement. Working in effortless synchrony, Bernadoni and Branchi have created a menu inspired by their Florentine culinary backgrounds, emphasizing fresh, quality ingredients. A seasonally changing menu of specials promises regular innovation. Above all, it is their shared passion for the craft and for their customers that permeates Operacaffe. Bernadoni and Branchi have created an experience that makes fine dining accessible and approachable to everyone, blending the open-armed welcome of a family meal with the sense of awe and deep palate pleasures of haute cuisine artistry.
The amber glow of Operacaffe beckons us from the street, an inviting warmth from the chill of the autumn evening. I am struck by its delightfully European aesthetic: its large picture windows, reminiscent of French brasseries and European gastropubs, and wrought iron-railed patio, offering the promise of lazy, espresso-sipping afternoons. Although it feels a little too cold to indulge in this romantic foreign fantasy, it instantly inspires plans for future afternoon visits.
Operacaffe is the visual articulation of its creators’ culinary philosophy, uniting a rustic, familial charm, an Old World elegance, and subtle, refreshing notes of modernity. Inside a glass-cased open kitchen buzzes with activity. To our left, an expansive booth, upholstered in vibrant stripes, nestles comfortably against the window. Farm-style, wooden tables are dispersed evenly throughout the space. Set simply with brown paper placemats and bottles of olive oil, they seat intimate groups of two, and larger communal-style gatherings of six or eight guests. Antique artifacts are displayed like family heirlooms or museum relics, but without pretension: most striking is an antiquated scale, subtly presented in an exhibit-style glass case. Sophisticated decorative accents elevate the ambience and create interesting juxtapositions: a large, black framed mirror hangs on an exposed brick wall, reflecting bold floral displays, while wrought iron candelabras cast flickering shadows across the ochre-colored, rough plastered walls. Splashes of red, gold, and olive green in upholstery throughout the room punctuate the space with a distinctive vibrancy. It is both elegant and homey, instantly putting us at ease.
We are seated at a low banquette at the far end of the restaurant and are immediately greeted by Chef Roberto Bernadoni himself as he strides out from the back kitchen. Although he’s not fluent in English, he greets us warmly and animatedly. He returns to our table throughout our meal, sharing stories about his restaurants and life in Florence, and entertaining us with his ebullient personality. At first I think that we’re receiving special treatment because of the nature of our visit, but, as the evening progresses, I notice Chef Bernadoni and his attentive staff stopping at each table to ensure that every guest is comfortable and looked after. Some diners exchange boisterous pleasantries in Italian with Chef Bernadoni, while others, like myself, are mercifully spared the awkwardness of language barriers by the universality of Bernadoni’s contagious energy. Laughter and friendly chatter fill the dining room, as diners and employees luxuriate together in the simple joie de vivre of a shared love of food.
Happily distracted by the activity throughout the restaurant, the Pera Pazza salad is a breath-taking surprise that returns our attention to the primary focus of our visit: the food. A whole Bartlett pear balances on top of a verdant bed of arugula, glistening from its own juices and golden droplets of honey that are drizzled over the pear and around the plate. Once we dare to deconstruct the delicate culinary sculpture, the dish reveals its true treasures: each section of the pear is hollowed out and filled in with a rich mixture of creamy gorgonzola, walnuts, and watercress. At first bite, the sweetness of the honey hits the tongue, then blends effortlessly into the pungency of the gorgonzola and the watercress ‘s peppery bitterness. The subtle sweet, grainy flesh of the pear returns the palate to the initial sweetness. Flavors layer upon one another in a mirror of its visual presentation, transforming my expectations about the very concept of a salad with this nuanced interpretation. It is a dazzling beginning to our feast, one that suggests a memorable meal of hidden pleasures.
The Patrizia salad, a lovely counterpoint to the complexities of the Pera Pazza, is a study in the flavor potentials of fresh ingredients. Shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano the size of checkerboard squares mingle with sprinklings of hearts of palm, and creamy white chunks of fresh mozzarella, all resting atop a bed of arugula and mixed greens. In a stroke of brilliance, slices of avocado reference the common Mediterranean climate shared by the restaurant’s Italian culinary inspiration and its current Southern Californian location. While the presentation is simple, and unpretentious, each bite reveals subtle sophistications. The flavors are clean and refreshing, with the nutty parmesan accenting the creaminess of the avocado and mozzarella, and the acidic hearts of palm and pungent greens adding sharp flavor punctuations. Like a skillfully crafted work of art, it gives the impression of easy replication, when in reality, it is the quality of the ingredients, and their shrewd and precise application, that make this salad so satisfying.
Operacaffe’s namesake pizza is presented golden and steaming to our table. Like the Patrizia salad that preceded it, the pizza reflects a rustic aesthetic, with large, curling slices of prosciutto di Parma and whole arugula leaves scattered across its cheesy surface. This is truly an Italian pizza, its thin, irregular shaped crust, and light application of mascarpone cheese and melted mozzarella more supporting the prosciutto and arugula than as defining flavors. Each bite is the essence of comfort: the warm, gooey cheeses cushion the rich salty meat and bitter arugula, and are accented by the toasty, crisp dough. My dining companion and I are elated when Chef Branchi offers to box up the remaining slices for leftovers, saving us from overindulgence.
Although the Ossobuchini Milanesi and Spaghetti di Mare arrive together, their flavor profiles differ greatly, and showcase the diversity of the Operacaffe kitchen. The pungent aroma of rosemary fills the air as soon as the Ossobuchini is placed at the table, eliciting the satisfying, cozy feelings of a nourishing winter meal. Three small veal shanks drenched in a thick, pureed vegetable sauce congregate in front of a tower of golden Arborio rice, garnished by the rosemary that permeates the dish. The buttery veal, infused with a hearty, stew-like taste, is accented by the toothy texture of the saffron rice. The dish warms us to the core, and is a wonderful antidote to the darkness of the approaching winter.
In contrast, the Spaghetti di Mare is light and ethereal: a reveling in fruits de mer. Unlike the minimalist architecture of the Ossobuchini Milanesi, this dish is a bounteous, tangled nest of pasta and oceanic treasures. Black, shiny mussels protrude defiantly, while meaty chunks of salmon, curling pink shrimps, and white squid rings surrender themselves to the delicious chaos of the dish. Pearly clams glint against the light, adding to the appeal of this visual feast. The flavors are as bright and varied as the visual cornucopia suggests, accented by lemony acid and subtle ocean brine.
Jokingly lamenting that he has been relegated to baking bread and making desserts, Chef Bernadoni insists we try his sweet creations. Although this night of gluttony has left us little room, we cannot resist his charming entreaties. As soon as we see the desserts, we are glad we succumbed. The heady scent of chocolate perfumes our table from La Caterina. The flourless Belgian chocolate cake rises from a pool of cocoa dusted mascarpone sauce, with a cluster of red raspberries nestled beside it. Each bite overwhelms with the decadence of chocolate without being cloyingly sweet, the tartness of the raspberries cutting through the richness. The Pannacotta appears, at first glance to be more understated. A ring of milky custard forms a concentric circle within the plate in an abstractly minimalist composition. As our spoons sink in, we are delighted to discover whole blueberries suspended within its creamy body. It is cool and subtle, with tart, juicy bursts from the whole berries to excite the palate. The desserts are astounding, delicate and refined, and certainly nothing to lament.
As we take our leave, Chefs Bernadoni and Branchi bid us affectionately goodbye with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks, as if we are their own daughters. We leave behind the Tuscan warmth of Operacaffe for the noise of the Gaslamp Quarter, our appetites and our hearts deeply satiated.