Seize the Italian cuisine at Carpe Diem

March 21, 2012

From the print edition

For many years the old street-side adobe building that housed Cerutti restaurant, in the western San José suburb of Escazú, was a landmark. Known for its formal elegance and classic Italian dishes, Cerutti was also one of the most expensive places to dine in Costa Rica, which prevented many from becoming regulars.

However, Nicola and Mariarosa Papangelo, who managed Cerutti before, have given the property a substantial face-lift, adding a large lounge bar with a private VIP area to the side of the original building. The decor has been freshened up while retaining its quaint character, and the restaurant has a new name, Carpe Diem. So, more than ready to “seize the day,” a group of us went off to see how things have changed.

We arrived in time for happy hour (5:30-7:30 p.m.), which offers 50 percent off bar appetizers and a selection of half a dozen Italian wines at ₡2,000 ($4) a glass (normally ₡4000-₡5,500/$8-$11 a glass). The red Montepulciano arrived chilled in oversized glasses that well suited its crisp body and flavor, but surprisingly the bar could not provide a simple Bacardi Gold rum from its ample stock. However, if you are into martinis (₡3,600-₡5,000/$7.20-$10) and other cocktails (₡2800-₡4,000/$5.60-$8) or gourmet beers, there is plenty of choice. 

Carpe Diem 2

Semifreddo dessert.


Vicky Longland

Colors in the lounge are in fashionably austere neutral charcoals and white with elements of red in the under-bar lighting and waitstaff aprons. The padded leatherette seating was very comfortable, with diner-style layouts mixed with intimate tables for two. We went on a Tuesday evening and had the place to ourselves, so the long, dark, high-ceilinged room seemed rather cavernous.

We did not sample the stuzzicheria (appetizer) menu, but moved through to the restaurant. What a warm contrast! The cozy adobe rooms offset a minimalist chic with undraped windows showcasing a few stylish ornaments. The dining tables, however, have retained their formal opulence with heavy, white linen cloths, myriad glassware and attractive place settings. Service was attentive and timely.

You can opt for the degustación or tasting menu, which offers two appetizers, main course, dessert and half a bottle of Italian wine for ₡19,900 ($40) per person. However, this is only available to the whole table, not individual diners. Dipping homemade focaccia into olive oil and balsamic vinegar, we decided to explore the à la carte menu instead. 

Our entrée choices of Caesar salad with a wonderful, crispy Parmesan wheel (₡3,200/$6.40), vitello tonnato perfumed with black truffles (₡4,700/$9.40), and carpaccio of octopus with black olive dressing (₡4,200/$8.40) all received thumbs-up, although the delicate octopus flavor was somewhat overwhelmed by the pungent sauce. A light strawberry sorbet arrived to clear our palates before the main course. 

So many times, I come away from dining out thinking imaginative appetizers outrank the main dishes, which sometimes disappoint. Not here. One of our group wanted spaghetti puttanesca, which was not on the menu but was happily produced from the kitchens (₡6,900/$14). Our other selections were deemed excellent: The wild mushroom ravioli with truffle emulsion (₡8,900/$18) was delicious and well textured, and the slow-cooked osso buco over saffron rice (₡15,900/$32) was soon eaten down to its bone. The marsala-glazed lamb over a pad of steamed polenta (₡15,900/$32), perfect for sopping up the rich gravy, was found a little dry. 

Desserts were squeezed in somehow, with the nougat and almond semifreddo (₡4,920/$9.80) a crunchy delight, while the chocolate soufflé (₡4,900/$9.80) was a pretty confection, if not outstanding. Complimentary glasses of Limoncello rounded off a well-received meal that at ₡102,900 ($206) for four people with eight glasses of decent wine and two cocktails, while not cheap, was not thought excessive.

Carpe Diem

Location: San Rafael de Escazú, diagonal to Scotiabank

Hours: Monday-Saturday, restaurant, noon-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m.; lounge, noon-2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m.; happy hour, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Contact: 2228-4511, www.carpediemcr.com

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