Photos by Luke Phillips/Paso Robles Press; Chef Varia headshot contributed
As the winter months cool the oak trees and turn the Central Coast vines bare and dormant, Antonio Varia, executive chef and owner of the area’s favorite Italian restaurants, Buona Tavola in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, will be finding new ways to serve up his truffle mushrooms, polenta and risotto. Winter is the perfect time for Varia’s Osso Buco, or the most popular of the menu’s primi piatti: Spaghettini allo Scoglio d’Oro — a festa of a pasta dish with roasted garlic, Manila clams, black mussels, sea scallops, baby lobster tail, white shrimp and diced roma tomatoes in a crustacean saffron broth with a touch of cream. And with a bottle of Colline Novaresi “Fara,” from the wine list: a blend of nebbiolo, vespolina, and uva rara — “Mamamia, it’s so good,” Varia would say.
Both his restaurants are favorites on many couples, lists and take the highest Zagat ratings, but the Paso Robles location is in a romantic spot, just off the downtown square. Many choose Buona Tavola for wine dinners, wedding events and private parties, and the locals all know Chef Varia. The ambiance is elegant and charming and romantic, with stunning custom lighting, and a nice view of the kitchen’s magic-making under an arc, where Varia and his chefs create arguably the best, and most authentic Northern Italian cuisine between San Fransisco and L.A.
Varia switches his specials all the time, and if we’re lucky, we might be able to taste some of his porcini risotto — with porcini mushrooms he collected on one of his latest trips to Europe, from the English countryside of his wife’s descendents’ home town.
On journeys back and forth from Europe, Varia visits his beloved home, a little town the region of Piemonte, Italy called Armeno, where his father left him the top flat of a house to stay in with a view of the mountain that he likes to ski down in January.
Armeno, in the province of Novara, is known for it’s chefs, Varia said. The Queen of England’s chef, now retired, is from Armeno, as well as Master Chef Alfredo Marzi, and Varia’s father, who lined up young Varia with cooking jobs in the best hotels and cruise ships as soon as he was tall enough to reach the countertop.
Varia has been cooking since age 8, ever since his mom had an operation and was in rehabilitation for months. Young Varia, the middle child of three, took over the cooking duties of the house while his father worked and older sister ran the household. He was stirring risotto over a flame the same time American kids were hoping to pour milk into a bowl of Cheerios without spilling.
In Armeno, chefs and waiters are celebrated, Varia said, so much so that the town celebrates “Festa di San Lorenzo,” honoring St. Lorenzo, who is the Patron Saint of chefs and cooks.
Varia learned everything he needed to learn as an apprentice by cooking alongside master chefs in his native Italy and in Europe’s finest hotels, and teaching himself to speak English through books. He stopped going to school in junior high to start cooking. “I believe education is very, very important,” said Varia, sitting on the patio, having lunch in his Paso Robles restaurant. His accent is charming. “(It) is the key. For somebody. For me — I always work hard.”
In the summers Varia worked on “the big island on the side of Italy” — Sardegna, and in the winters, at the ski slopes. “My father tried to send me to the best places,” he said, “places where there was a prestige.” He honed his skills on the Princess Cruise lines and as an executive chef in several award-winning Los Angeles restaurants.
He worked with his father, who passed this July, for about three months when he was young. He said his father, like many of the great chefs who used to give him a “kick in my butt” over cooking things properly, was the ultimate perfectionist. He remembered cutting up the soffritto (onion, celery and carrots) for a Minestrone back when he was young, and his father’s reaction — “He come by with a big chef hat, ‘You call that Minestrone?’” Varia growled, mimicking his father, “‘Throw it away! Do it again!’ — crazy.” So Varia said he learned to cut with precision. “I throw them away. Next time we make it better. I learn how to do it with love.”
Varia’s memories of his early cooking jobs were of preparing fresh abalone, black sea urchins, schooling French chefs on how to make a proper pasta, and even of feeling content just listening to music on his Walkman, sweeping an entry in anticipation of a restaurant opening in Marseilles, France. “I always enjoyed what I was doing. I love learning things.”
Believe it or not, Varia was one of two Italians who had to cross the border to America back when Varia calls himself “crazy, stupid, and young.”
Before relating his border-crossing experience, Varia must tell you how many tacos and Coronas he ate and drank during the whole ordeal. The man truly lives for the flavors of food and drink.
“I try to be truthful because I believe America was made for people that want to do something,” said Varia, who was working on a Princess Cruise line as a cook when Southern California chef Antonio Tommasi was looking for some talent for his restaurant in Los Angeles. He asked Varia, age 23 at the time, to come work for him. Varia tried to get a work Visa, but was denied due to the complications of working for the cruise lines. So Tommasi gave him the idea to cross the Mexican border at San Ysidro and San Diego so Varia could get to work at his new job.
As Varia describes it, he and one other Italian crossed the border with thousands of people, mostly Mexican, and meeting people from all over South America too. “It was the scariest thing I ever done,” he said. He was watching the border patrol at the crest, timing it, with big M16s in their hands. And Varia and his friend were running up and down the hills constantly, trying to avoid detection with the help of some paid guides.
Varia and his friend made it across the border safely, arriving late in the night. The very next day he was was working in an Italian restaurant in the U.S. He eventually earned his citizenship, and talked about taking the test for his Visa, and crying out of appreciation that he was entering a country with endless opportunity.
In his hometown of Armena he sees an influx of refugees from places like Morocco and Syria. The population went from 15,000 to 17,000. He said the town’s mentality a whole is pretty ‘closed,’ but when Varia meets a refugee he smiles and asks him how he’s doing, “Come va?” Because he knows, firsthand, what it feels like being a stranger in a strange place. “I travel the world for my work,” he said, “I’m no longer the little child growing up in the little town...I was wild back then. I smooth the edges.”
“My dad always say, have fun when you are young because when you get older, you have to have wisdom, so I really had a lot of fun.”
Part of the fun included meeting his wife, Kasie Varia, 29 years ago, at the suggestion of a friend. He made her ravioli on their first date. It might have been the ravioli, or Varia’s irresistible charm, or both, but he said she gave him the “call me” look. Kasie Varia was a lawyer at the time. Varia’s friend warned him “never to marry a smart lady,” but Varia, who fell deeply in love said, “No, I probably gonna learn a lot.” Kasie Varia has been a big part of the restaurant since it’s opening, in designing the interiors, and in anything ‘lawyerly.’ She keeps me safe, Varia said.
After Varia worked in his new job for about a month, then opened up a new place for the owner and helped run the kitchen, as well as running several other kitchens in this series of Italian restaurants. He and his wife bought a ranch in Creston in 1992, and raised a daughter in North County, starting Buona Tavola SLO in 1992 and Buona Tavola Paso Robles a decade later.
At Buona Tavola, the pasta is imported from Italy or is made fresh with a pasta machine, but when Varia is cooking for a small group of people, he makes it by hand, “You make a little fountain,” he said, talking about the mound of flour you hand-work with some egg. The last time he was in Italy, he couldn’t say enough about one of his favorite little Piemontese restaurants — Villa Pizzini — at an elevation of 10,000 feet (which he calculated back from meters), which only produces the local food or “what the mountain give you,” as Varia puts it — a little 30-seat-max ristorante run by a husband/wife pair, where the pasta is made from an ancient Roman grain called “grano saraceno,” or buckwheat. To hear Varia recall the flavors and excitement of the cooking at Villa Pizzini, a 30-minute drive from Lago Maggiore, puts his passion for food into perspective, and it’s obvious that he finds most of his culinary inspiration from his birth home. He drank a 45-year-old whisky that he’ll never forget, but the food — fresh trout from the local stream — seared Tagliata over arugula with a little cream of balsamic sauce... one could tell — made Varia’s soul soar to the highest level.
Varia tries to bring as much as he can from his Piemonte roots back to Buona Tavola. One food which may just be worthy of a shrine and a candle in front of it, is his homemade salami. He has his own salami plant in Atascadero, where he makes handcrafted natural pork salami, fresh and vegetarian fed, crate-free, with no hormones or antibiotics added. The Alle-Pia company is named after his late mother, Maria Pia Allesina, where a Jesus cross, and photographs of his Italian ancestors hang on the walls, and a Cal Poly flag waves in local pride.
It is the Varia family tradition to make salami together each winter. “We are kind of really Italian,” said Varia. “Every day you try to do good things. Like the food. I try to make it good.”
Good? It’s not just good. People from Italy are known to taste the food at Buona Tavola and try to convince to come back to Italy.
The Paso Robles Buona Tavola may differ a little from the San Luis Obispo crowd, which centers around the college. “Here in Paso it’s more about the full dining experience,” he said. “People actually dine.” In Italy, lunch, or pranzo, is usually regarded as the most important meal of the day. Most shops and businesses close for the pausa pranzo (lunch break), between 1-3 p.m. The typical pranzo consists of il primo (pasta dish), the first course, il secondo (meat or fish dish), the second course, served with il contorno, the side dish (salad or vegetables). The cena, or dinner in Italy is usually light, such as a soup or lunch leftovers. However a formal meal in Italy, could be something to try at Buona Tavola, not required, but nonetheless fun, as the menu is separated into the traditional courses, meant for sharing.
The formal meal usually begins with an Aperitivo such as the aged whisky Varia savored on his last trip or a split of Canella Prosecco, or others might gather and start the social event with an Aranciata or San Pellegrino, snacking on olives, such as Buona Tavola’s Sicilian Castelvetrano olives or Taggiasca olives from Genova. The Antipasto course, next, a more substantial starter, often includes a charcuterie plate or bruschetta. At Buona Tavola, the Affettati misti is a must. Our plate, which may change due to the whim of the chefs, featured three of Varia’s handcrafted small-batch salami: The Finocchiona, Cacciatorino and Barolo, with pancetta, and a variety of imported artisanal cheeses such as Pecorino and Ubriaco. Growing up in Piemonte, “we always had salami on the table,” Varia said. “Salami was the first thing.”
During the Paso Roble Press and Atascadero News’ recent visit to the restaurant, we tried antipasto served with three spreads served with crusty bread: Nduja, a cured, spicy, spreadable Calabrian-style salami, Bagnetto, a blend of parsley, garlic, capers, vinegar, extra virgin olive oil to accompany the salami, and Buona Tavola’s very own homemade Olivata, made with black olives, dijon mustard seed, infused organic herbs from Varia’s own garden, imported Italian olive oil and balsamic. Varia simmers his Olivata, which he sells at the restaurant by the jar, all night to deepen the flavor of the herbs. He strains the herbs over the olives with the mustard seed.
Another antipasto plate we tried was melt-in-your-mouth Avvoltini di melanzane alla Parmigiana, a grilled eggplant rolled with mozzarella and parmesan cheese, spiced with oregano. The flavor-packed dish was baked in a light tomato basil sauce.
For the Primo Piatti, or first course, which is typically pasta, risotto, or another form of hot food, heavier than the antipasti, we tried the Linguine ai muscoli di mare e porri, which was a big bowl of linguine pasta, Manila clams, sea scallops, small black mussels and shrimp in a white wine sauce delicately flavored with garlic and leeks.
Moving on to the Secondi Piatti, the course that includes different kinds of meats or fish, Varia brought us a quintessential Piedmonte-style dish, the Teneroni Portobello, or veal scaloppine, with braised Portobello mushroom and roasted garlic in a rich veal reduction and marsala wine sauce. The grass-fed veal was light and tender, and thinly sliced to leave room for the next course. The secondo piatto is normally served with a contorno, or side dish — usually a hot or cold vegetable dish, at this time. We had the Insalata tricolore della Buona Tavola, which was a salad made with arugula, radicchio, mushrooms, Grana Padano cheese, rosemary garlic croutons and caesar dressing. Both the Primi and Secondi Piatti went well with Varia’s wine choice for the meal, a Piemonte Fara (nebbiolo/vespolina/uva rara) red with the lightness of a Pinot Noir.
Many Italians devote an entire course called the Formaggi e frutta to local cheeses and fresh seasonal fruit after the Insalata.
To finish the traditional meal, for the Dolce, or dessert course we had the Crema Di Vaniglia Della Buona Tavola, a vanilla cream custard topped with half caramel and half chocolate sauce. We also made room for the Fior di Seta, a house made flourless chocolate cake served over a bed of vanilla cream and raspberry puree’, which happens to be dairy, soy, egg, GMO, gluten and corn-free.
Next in the Italian meal structure is the Caffè course and we had the perfect espresso, with crema to satisfy even the most particular. Following the Caffè is the Digestivo, or the Ammazzacaffè if served after the coffee rather than before. This is the final course when beverages such as limoncello, port or vino per dolci is served. At Buona Tavola, one alluring choice on the wine list is the 2005 Felsina Vin Santo served with homemade almond biscotti.
For Varia, the future looks buona. Going to the salami plant at 7 a.m., and back to one of his restaurants “Everyday I’m here,” he said. But one day he would like his 21-year-old daughter Tessa to take over the family business. When she calls Varia on his cell phone, the name “Principessa” appears on the screen. Tessa spent her third-grade year in an Armeno school, and speaks Italian without an accent. She studied Montessori in San Luis Obispo for most of her elementary years, but went on to the Fine Arts Academy in Atascadero and then Atascadero High School. “I’m looking forward for my daughter to come in my footsteps,” he said, “We’ll see…”
Buona Tavola is located at 943 Spring Street, Paso Robles. Call 805-237-0600 for reservations or reserve online. Hours are Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m for Lunch, Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. for dinner, and Friday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. for dinner.