San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Established Italian Restaurateur Now Offers

It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but at La Piazzetta it isn’t necessary. You’ll find no trendy, fusion food at this long-standing favorite that has been around for 20 years.

The restaurant on San José’s Paseo Colón offers an excellent menu of traditional Italian food. Waiters clad in waistcoats and bow ties give formal and attentive service to the business lunch crowd, as well as dinnertime clientele.

On a recent evening, a party of five of us enjoyed the warm, formal ambience and pianist Makondo’s quiet background jazz while we studied the menu and sipped on an Italian cabernet franc. From the selection of hot and cold appetizers, we chose the topquality smoked salmon and salmon pockets stuffed with feta cheese and asparagus. Both were excellent, as were the buffalo mozzarella with tomato and the fried goat’s cheese atop a fresh tomato purée. The Caesar salad, however, was not the real McCoy, as there wasn’t a leaf of romaine lettuce in sight.

Pasta and risotto lovers have a large variety to choose from, and there is a good selection of steaks, lamb and other meats, as well as chicken, fish and seafood platters. The steak in a green pepper sauce was tender and juicy, and the penne with lobster in a cognac sauce proved a great hit, as did the fresh ravioli stuffed with pumpkin. Sweet potato is often substituted in this strange but traditional Italian recipe, seldom seen on any menu. The jumbo shrimp were devoured with great gusto, but, sad to say, the homemade lasagna was dry, overcooked and didn’t make the grade. We all passed on the small choice of desserts, which included tiramisu, and opted for coffee instead.

Appetizers range from $7 to $9, except for the buffalo mozzarella and any dish with shrimp, which can run as high as $16. Pastas are reasonable priced (unless you add seafood) and start at $6, while steaks, fish and other dishes range from $10 to $16. The wine ($26) upped the bill considerably. If you don’t order extravagantly, expect to pay about $20 per person, including tax, service and a glass of house wine.

Go West, Wine Lovers

For those who don’t want to venture downtown, La Piazzetta’s owner, restaurateur Pietro D’Onghia, has opened another option for wine connoisseurs and discriminating diners in the western suburb of Escazú.

The new venture’s name, Club del Vino, could be misleading, as it’s not a private club, nor does it have anything to do with the Wine Club of Costa Rica. However, the restaurant offers an amazing selection of wines that will delight any oenophile, as well as top-notch Italian cuisine in an artistically renovated two-story home.

Lengthwise windows overlook the lush tropical garden, and no roar of Escazú traffic can be heard in this elegant, contemporary setting. A collection of corks from wine bottles decorates the walls, and, at night, the black, white and maroon motif is enhanced by pleasant lighting.

The cave is stocked with more than 400 kinds of red wines from almost every winegrowing country in the world, and the wide range of prices will suit all pockets. The “Opus One” rack was empty, awaiting a new shipment, as one dedicated customer had consumed every bottle in stock. The choice of white wines is smaller, and a few token rosés and champagnes are available.

One cannot live on wine alone, and the extensive bill of fare offers a similar but larger choice than La Piazzetta. The night a group of us went for dinner, two were frequent Club del Vino diners, two were rookies, and I was making a happy return visit.

Upon our arrival, general manager Luis Rodríguez gave us a gracious welcome.

We sipped on a Spanish Lagar de Cervera albariño ($24) and ordered appetizers: fried, breaded squid served with two different dipping sauces, and plump, juicy, earthy-flavored escargot swimming in garlic and butter.

It was a pity they weren’t served in shells, because they didn’t look particularly appetizing sitting on a plate; however, their taste made up for the unattractive presentation.

The lobster bisque, an extravagant, quintessential soup, is a must for lobster lovers, and the red snapper tartare served with capers and olives was an interesting variation on the traditional steak tartare.

We ordered a Californian Estancia Estate pinot noir ($34) to go with our main courses, a tender, juicy, grilled rib eye, large succulent jumbo shrimp in a coconut sauce, mushroom-stuffed ravioli sautéed in a nut sauce, and ravioli stuffed with shrimp and served with a mussel sauce. All received rave reviews. However, I made a mistake and ordered the Scottish-style salmon with oysters and mushrooms. The salmon itself was sublime, fresh, pink and moist, but the abundance of mushrooms piled on top overpowered the delicate flavor. Next time I’ll order it with a simple dill sauce or absolutely plain.

With no room left, five little piggies shared three delicious desserts: a coconut flan, a liquor-soaked tiramisu and a chocoholic’s dream, a chocolate cake that gushed forth hot, yummy dark chocolate.

It was indeed an extravagant banquet that received accolades for the quality of food, presentation and impeccable service, which even included a speedy mop-up job when one diner slopped sauce down her dress. To celebrate a special occasion, Club del Vino is certainly a good choice.

Our bill for the five of us, including tax and service, came to a hefty $295, but this included three bottles of excellent, pricey wine. If you do not indulge in a bacchanalian feast, expect to pay about $20 to $25 per person.

Club del Vino

Location: 600 meters south of El Cruce in San Rafael de Escazú, on the left side of the road going up toward Escazú Centro. There’s a large, guarded parking lot in front.

Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.

Phone: 2289-9468.

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