- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- CROSS COUNTRIES : What do you get when you mix Cuban and Italian cuisine? How about (left to right) arroz con pollo a la Cubana, compressed Manchego salad, apple tart, and filet mignon?
This is a traditional Cuban sandwich filled with tender, succulent pork tenderloin, smoky sliced ham, Swiss cheese, sliced dill pickle, mayo, and mustard, served on a housemade bun, and grilled panini style. Humming delightedly at the first bite, I exclaimed it was the best version I had ever tasted. It came with perfect-crispy home fries, sliced tomato, and lettuce on the plate—so much food I barely put a dent in it. The rest came home with me.
I visited two more times and always enjoyed delicious foods and great service at the old Victorian on Marsh Street in San Luis Obispo, which recently underwent an amazing redux. Formerly Benvenuti (Italian for “welcome”), it was a classic Italian restaurant owned and managed by Gennaro Rosato. The quaint place underwent an amazing transformation: The walls were refreshed with the golden hues of the sun, and the cozy rooms offer the relaxed atmosphere of a café on the Mediterranean. The big difference here is the menu, which offers well-made comfort foods from Italy and Cuba. The Victorian on Marsh Street is still owned by Gennaro, who founded Benvenuti in 1988. Gennaro retired in 2005 and leased the building to other chefs, but none lasted long—unlike Benvenuti’s successful 16-year run. A year ago, Gennaro met Dr. Raul R. Cano of Cal Poly at a neighbor’s dinner party, where the two men became fast friends.
“I found him interesting and enjoyed the story of his Fossil Fuels Brewing Co.,” Gennaro recalled. “The more we talked, the more I liked him.”
The duo partnered up to open Gennaro’s.
After renovating the historic house, they created a menu that reflects their Italian and Cuban heritage. They opened quietly on May 10, Gennaro explained, because their liquor license wasn’t yet approved, so they couldn’t serve wine or beer to the public. When an eatery has been open less than a month, I don’t believe a critic should review it. No matter how experienced the restaurateur, it takes time to break in the wait staff and the cooks. But it was clear they’re off to a good start after the delicious meals I enjoyed there.
Enthused about the lunch, I returned three days later for dinner with my husband, Dan. We also devoured the whole-wheat focaccia, and we rarely eat the bread. That night’s specials included a roasted beet Napoleon with goat cheese, stacked six layers high, with a side of mesclun, diced beets, and toasted almonds, tossed in a nicely balanced Champagne vinaigrette, with a drizzle of tasty balsamic for $10. Another soulful dish was the pappardelle with Italian sausage, red bell peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes for $14. It was a popular dish on Benvenuti’s menu. Like everything else, it was plentiful enough to take some home, which still tasted great the next day. We enjoyed it all with an awesome bottle of Alban 2008 Syrah Patrina. The wine list focuses on Central Coast wines and a well-chosen selection of Italian wines. Soon, Gennaro plans to add Spanish wines to pair with the Cuban dishes.
Dan and I shared two Cuban entrées: pescado a la Vizcaina for $26, halibut cooked in white wine sauce with potatoes, onions, and tomatoes; and roasted pork a la Cubana for $21, thickly sliced and flavorful, served with plantain-mashed potatoes, grilled plantains, and baby carrots. They’re comfort food recipes that were made by Raul’s mother. I told Gennaro how much I enjoyed each meal, and he said: “I am very stubborn about buying the best ingredients; I don’t want to see anything that isn’t fresh. That’s why I’m always here checking everything.”
I met the friendly Raul during the first lunch and found that he’s as passionate about it as is Gennaro. Clearly, the new restaurant is a labor of love for both partners.
You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.