Biting into fresh, home-made tortelloni stuffed with pumpkin and ricotta cheese and topped with sage, mascarpone sauce and walnuts, is joy enough on its own. Pairing that flavorful experience with the picturesque al fresco environment at Buona Tavola restaurant in San Luis Obispo, strung with lights and set with ironed, white tablecloths, takes it to another level. And when Chef-Owner Antonio Varias opens his mouth to tell me his story, emitting his mesmerizing, full-bodied and loosely flowing Italian accent, everything—the rich, delicious food, the superb service, the tucked away little corner restaurant ambiance—mingles together with his voice to create that beautiful, one-of-a-kind warmth and bliss that epitomizes Italian culture.
It’s as close to Italy as you can get in San Luis Obispo. And it is nothing short of transcendent.
In his affable, mellifluous way, Varias describes how he came from the mountainous lake region of Piemonte in northern Italy to California over 27 years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He had grown up as his family’s designated cook—his mother having been ill—and had enjoyed the work so much that his father helped him take the next step to become a chef at various hotels in his area.
“I really enjoyed it, but my dream was always to come to the United States,” Varias says. In the ’80s, he took the helm of a Princess Cruise ship’s floating kitchen, landing eventually in Los Angeles, where he began working for a well-known chef in Beverly Hills named Antonio Tomasi. Four years later, Varias and his wife decided to move to San Luis Obispo, a town they had visited over the years and liked. They bought a ranch and, in 1992, opened their first restaurant, Buona Tavola.
“Buona Tavola is a name meaning ‘good table,’” Varias translates—but the true meaning of the Italian phrase is not so simple. At Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, with all of your family around you, he explains, “Usually, before you say grace in Italy, you say, ‘Ah, che bella tavola!’ or ‘Che buona tavola!’—What a good table, full of friends, family and good food!” It is this sense of happiness and love that he wanted to convey with the name, and which he hopes to express by cooking food he not only loves to make, but loves to eat.
Understandably, his specialty is Northern Italian cuisine, which he explains has a lot of influence from Germany, Sweden and France. “It’s more ‘white,’” he says, referring to the creamy white sauces used in the pasta and gnocchi dishes of the region, which rely heavily on cream, cheese and butter, as opposed to the spicier, olive-oil-laden, tomato and eggplant dishes of southern Italy.
In addition to the traditional gnocchi, which they make fresh every day, and the classic Piemonte pappardelle (wide ribbon pasta), and agnolotti (half-moon shaped ravioli) dishes, Varias also includes other styles of Italian cooking like the Timballo Valdostano, which is similar to southern eggplant parmigiano.
But it doesn’t take long to get to the food topic Varias sounds most enthusiastic about these days: his salami business. “It’s doing fantastic, Signora, I’m so excited,” he says, explaining that it all started in his Paso Robles restaurant (the second Buona Tavola, opened in 2001), after he caught a wild boar at Santa Margarita Ranch. “It was too much meat, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I decide to make salami and it turned out really good and I gave it away for free [at the restaurant].” Soon enough, customers and friends were clamoring for more, asking if they could buy it from him. So, Varias decided to make more with his own pigs, and then his own goats, which he raises on his ranch. A year and a half later, he opened Alle-Pia Fine Cured Meats, now a wildly successful endeavor, locally and nationally.
This venture, of course, also stems from his roots in northern Italy. Varias recalls that he and his family would always get together at his grandparents’ nearby farm for the Vendemmia Festival (celebrating the harvest of the grapes) where they would drink wine, kill one or two pigs and make salami for the whole family. Those bucolic days on the farm inform his cooking and his curing now, guiding him to choose only the freshest, local meats, ingredients and spices, and to make everything from scratch.
As he talks of his large family and his hometown in Italy, there is a twinge of nostalgia in his words. Varias says he tries to go back to visit two or three times a year, though he hasn’t this year.
“But,” he says, “I love it. I would not change my life for anything else. I’ve been traveling lately in the United States, and no other place is better than San Luis Obispo, I tell you!” he says, with that matchless wide, warm Italian smile. “I’ve really been blessed, Signorina. I do what I love to do: cooking!”
Enjoy the rich, delicious food of Buona Tavola in San Luis Obispo at 1037 Monterey St., (805) 545-8000 or in Paso Robles at 943 Spring St., (805) 237-0600. Gluten-free menu available.
— Jamie Relth