IN the San José dining scene, somewhere between overpriced Gringo and salt of-the-earth soda, restaurants exist with both warmth and class – the neighborhood places you like to go with a group of friends to celebrate good company and rich food. Bravissimo, in the eastern suburb of San Pedro, is one of those restaurants.
Recently opened in July, it’s a little place with only a handful of tables, but the food looks like works of art without costing as much, and the Chilean family that owns and operates the restaurant is always around, waiting tables and generally being hospitable.
On a recent Thursday night, Bravissimo was busy. Not crowded, but busy. As we took a table by a window, I tried to get a peek at the food sailing by us on hip-looking square plates. Whatever it was smelled great, and we turned our attention to the menu.
Bravissimo isn’t cheap, but unlike many other middling-to-expensive restaurants I’ve visited in Costa Rica, it’s worth the price. Entrées run ¢4,000-7,000 ($8-14) and feature the usual suspects of meat, salad, pasta and seafood.
OUR server, Katherine – one of the co-owners, who runs the restaurant with her parents – took our orders with a smile. I opted for a shrimp and mushroom crepe, while my companions ordered eggplant parmigiana and the Bravissimo chicken. We sat back and sipped our wine, wondering what, exactly, could be so bravissimo about chicken.
Katherine returned shortly to our table, wringing her hands and begging our patience with the food. Why? we asked. What’s the problem? She answered that when there are a lot of customers the chef gets nervous and starts yelling, so he can’t be pressured too much.
Art being what it is, we told her the chef could take his time. It was a little flattering, honestly, knowing that our cook cared enough about the food to get upset. Later we learned that Bravissimo chef Alberto Siles is a self-taught Tico who learned how to cook while washing dishes at a hotel.
Every day he watched the chefs carefully and then practiced on his own. The restaurant staff said he had the recipes for 150 different sauces in his head. No wonder he was a little touchy.
Meanwhile, we were off to a tasty start with the salmon carpaccio, little rolled shavings of smoked salmon with capers and olive oil and bits of tomato. This little treat cost ¢3,900 ($8), with all the appetizers ranging between ¢3,000-4,500 ($6-9).
BY the time our entrées arrived, we had gone through a glass of wine each – good timing for the arrival of the meal.
The food was beautiful. My shrimp and mushroom crepe was practically dessert, with buttery white sauce both covering and filling the pastry, and shrimps that were sweet as candy.
We quickly found out that the Bravissimo chicken was, indeed, bravissimo, as the rice bed on which the breast rested contained some sort of mouth-inflaming hot pepper. The creamy side of mashed potatoes helped alleviate the burning, and the chicken and vegetables were done to perfection. But be advised that this dish can hurt you.
Our guess that the eggplant parmigiana was made with fresh tomatoes was confirmed later when we tried to order a brownie-and-ice-cream dessert. Katherine told us that because the restaurant used all fresh ingredients, there was no refrigerator and no freezer, so at night it was hard to keep ice cream in the kitchen.
THE dessert menu (¢1,000-3,000/$2-6) is, in fact, Bravissimo’s weakest point. The strawberry crepe contained some sort of questionable strawberry syrup, and past orders of mango and pineapple mousse have been equally disappointing. The flambéed banana, while it tasted all right, was a little boring. I had always been under the impression that flambéed desserts would be doused in rum and set on fire in front of me to satisfy my inner 13-year-old boy. My mistake, perhaps, but it was still disappointing.
But that’s really a small complaint, and it’s a kink the owners are trying to work out of their new business. The family atmosphere and the lovingly prepared food always make Bravissimo a satisfying experience. We finished the night with some Italian coffee, espresso for me and cappuccino for my companions. Bravissimo’s barista is the owner of the excellent Café Fez on nearby Calle de la Amargura, in the university district, so the coffee, not surprisingly, was mighty good.
Be advised that although complimentary house wine is available, as of this writing Bravissimo still did not have its liquor license. One hopes the municipality coughs it up soon, as Bravissimo is a welcome addition to the San Pedro neighborhood.
Bravissimo is on the main street in San Pedro, opposite the Office Depot. Menus are in Spanish and English. For information, call 225-0271 or 225-0283.