San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Living La Vita Dolce Even in Tough Times

Recessions are scary, especially if you’re a restaurateur. People literally tighten their belts. But in the face  of stomach-churningeconomic news, treating yourself to a truly special meal can improve both your digestion and your psyche.

If northern Italian cuisine and Tuscan wines figure largely in your food fantasies, book a table at the reincarnation of renowned Restaurante Di Bartolo in the western San José suburb of Escazú. Launching an expanded version of a high-end restaurant during a major recession may not be the best timing, but there are no doubts about this restaurant’s recession-proof culinary qualifications.

Since its opening in 2001, Di Bartolo has won prestigious awards for its no-expensespared, authentic Tuscan cuisine, including five forks from the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) and five plates from local foodie magazine Sabores. With all those dishes and cutlery being thrown his way, eponymous chef Carlo di Bartolo has become something of a celebrity chef, both here and in his native Torino, Italy. As well as catering to the palates of local food cognoscenti, Di Bartolo also teaches the finer points of Mediterranean cuisine to students at the Inter-AmericanUniversity in Heredia, north of the capital.

The new restaurant, in exactly the same location as the original, is a creamy-stucco, Tuscan-style villa, with a wrought-iron Enoteca sign hanging over the entrance tower.

The standout decorative feature inside is an entire wall of wine racks and a gleaming wooden bar. Lunch is served in two bright but rather austere adjoining rooms. Elegant jacquard tablecloths cover the tables, but that’s about as far as the decor goes – apart from the large TV mounted on the wall and the view of the green concrete wall in the parking lot. The interior rooms reserved for dinners are much more intimate and Italianate, with distressed-wood door frames, vaulted brick ceilings, iron chandeliers, marble tile floors and antique sideboards.

But you’re here for the food, and it lives up to its high billing – in both senses. Di Bartolo prides itself on using first-quality, genuine, imported Italian ingredients, and it shows. The first taste of my Triangoli ai Funghi (¢7,910/$14) appetizer invokes, à la Proust, smells, tastes and images of Italian times past. Delicate egg-pasta triangles with an earthy, truffle-mushroom stuffing rest on a layer of paper-thin prosciutto di Parma.

Each ingredient is puro italiano, but the meltingly delicious sauce of olive oil and butter, with a sprinkling of fresh sage leaves, melds the flavors together in a sensational new way, proving that what the chef does with the excellent ingredients makes all the difference.

A liqueur glass of green-apple sorbet refreshes the palate in preparation for the main course: Veal Marsala (¢16,950/$30).

Pricey, yes, but the first veal worthy of the name that I have tasted in this country, fork-tender but retaining a perfect grainy texture. The sauce is lighter on marsala and heavier on butter, made even richer with no less than four different kinds of mushrooms bursting with flavor. A pretty medley of buttery baby vegetables accompanies the generous portion of veal.

My lunch companion tries one of the baked pastas – a spinach and mushroom lasagna, which bears no resemblance to the southern-Italian, tomatoey version. This lasagna is elegant, loaded with an assortment of mushrooms flavored with truffle oil and bathed with a creamy béchamel sauce (¢6,790/$12).

The wine list here is astonishing, focusing on imported Italian wines you won’t find anywhere else. Prices may also astonish, but the great thing here is the number of wines you can try by the glass, for ¢5,000 to ¢8,000 ($8.70 to $14). Still sounds expensive, but these wines are exceptional. It doesn’t get much better than sipping a Brunello di Montalcino (¢8,000) in Escazú, without paying the airfare to Tuscany. A less expensive but no less delightful wine is the Riserva Cannonau di Sardegna (¢5,500/$10), an oaky, spicy wine that goes perfectly with the mushroom lasagna.

For dessert, the buttery (again!), warm, dark chocolate cake with a hint of hazelnuts (¢4,520/$7.90) is hard to beat, accompanied by ice cream, whipped cream and strawberries.

No authentic Italian meal is complete without that last drop of espresso – to aid in the digestion of all that butter! – and the espresso here is perfect, served in trademark Illy demitasse cups (¢1,600/$2.80).

Di Bartolo is an excellent choice for a very special night out. The menu is the same at lunch and dinner, so I would opt for dinner in the more elegant, romantic dining rooms.

You can also stop by any evening to relax at a table in the spacious bar area, sip a glass of fine Italian wine and order an excellent pizza or a plate of extraordinary antipasti. Or stop by for an espresso and dessert. Any way you visit, you’ll be transported to Tuscany and a taste of la vita dolce.

Location: From the BAC San José in Escazú, across from La Paco commercial center, 800 meters north along the Guachipelín road. Look for the huge Di Bartolo sign across from Plaza Mundo.

Hours: Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.; weekends, noon to 11 p.m.

Phone: 2288-6787.


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