Il retorno of Chef Tony to the downtown of San José

When I arrived in Costa Rica, I lived on the east side of San José and eventually discovered a small Italian restaurant on a side street in San Pedro. It was called Ponte Vecchio and had two miniature dining rooms with a total of maybe eight tables very close to one another. I never met the chef, but the food was the ultimate in Italian cooking in my opinion, not complicated, just infused with taste.

Then the restaurant closed and Antonio D’Alaimo disappeared. I heard that someone in the States had convinced him to move there and open a restaurant in some Midwest city.

Thanks to the Little Theatre Group of Costa Rica, I became acquainted with the Casa Italia. That was back in the days when LTG had no permanent home, and we put on our performances wherever we could. The Casa Italia, on Eighth Avenue was our home for about a year where we presented four one act plays in a dinner theater setting in the auditorium. A series of Italian chefs occupied the restaurant space over the years, but they were not notable.

Then one day a new Italian restaurant called Il Ritorno opened. I tried that one, too. Out of the kitchen came Chef Tony, a short man with a tall chef’s hat, a small paunch and trousers that reminded me of a child’s pajamas or, as I thought then, “circus pants.” The waiters who had been with him at Ponte Vecchio were with him again.

I didn’t know Tony, but I liked his restaurant. On the wall in the vestibule outside hung a couple of dozen pictures of Chef Tony with various local celebrities. Inside, like restaurants in New York City, there were banquettes along one wall, above which was a long mirror that enlarged the room and reflected the light from the windows. On the window sills were a collection of tiny porcelain figurines, some that even looked like Tony (if I recall correctly). The tables always had cruets of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

I don’t recall the dishes that I had, but I do remember that whatever the pasta, it was always cooked exactly right. I became a regular diner at Il Ritorno, along with my friends and a large number of people who worked in or near the courts on Eighth Avenue. I went often enough that I became one of the diners Tony would come out and greet.

Then one day the food didn’t taste quite the same. Although two of the same waiters were there, a new chef, Marco, had taken over the restaurant, name and all. The same menu continued and slowly the quality came very close to Tony’s, but by now I had moved across the city to Sabana Norte and didn’t get to Il Ritorno very often.

Eventually I learned he had moved to Santa Ana and had relocated on the road to Belén. I went to the new restaurant, the Three Steps (my translation), once. The décor was ultra modern, nothing Italian about it, and it was just a restaurant too far. There were at least three Italian restaurants on, or just off, Pavas Boulevard, so I was not without my Mediterranean fix.

This past week, my friend Alexis told me she had heard that a new Italian restaurant had opened on Second Avenue. The person who told her about it raved about the pasta with clams and shrimp. “Let’s go,” was my response. The Sapore Trattoria (Taste of an Italian Café – my loose translation) was on the corner just before the Plaza Democracia. As we entered, I didn’t look around too much, just noticed that it was new, looked comfortable, had lots of windows and banquettes along the wall so I settled myself on a banquette behind one of the small tables.

A tall handsome man greeted me with a friendly smile as if he knew me. He looked vaguely familiar, but with my face blindness I am never sure. I figured he was the maitre d’.

He gave us our menus. (Have you noticed how large the menus in restaurants have become?) Before I could study it, a short man in a tall chef’s hat and a comfortable paunch appeared at the table. He took my hand, greeting me warmly. I was totally surprised. But Alexis sat grinning at me.

She had figured it out. Chef Tony was back in town.

This entry was posted in Friday Column. Bookmark the permalink.