Authentic Sardinian and Italian cuisine arrived in Alhambra on March 14 via the charming Caffè Italiano restaurant and coffee shop at 7 S. Second Street. Husband and wife owners Francesco Sari and Lauda Tomasi, and Chef Paolo Dessena are all from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. Their shared mission is to give fellow Alhambra residents a genuine experience of their homeland. Stop by for a croissant and cappuccino for breakfast as Italians do. For lunch and dinner, you’ll find specialties such as pane carasao and salsiccia sarda – crispy Sardinian flat bread roasted with Italian extra virgin olive oil and salt accompanied with sausage slices. Linguine vongole e bottarga di muggine (linguine with clams and dried mullet roe eggs, a popular seafood pasta and salad topping) is satisfying and flavorful. Weekend evenings include live music, Fridays with a pianist, Saturdays with a jazz guitarist.
For Sari and Tomasi, who have been married since 2009, the restaurant's opening marks a new beginning in a community where the couple feels at home. Sari, a bodybuilder who owned a successful restaurant and gym in Sardinia, moved to Alhambra in 2009 to reunite with Tomasi, a microbiologist, as she completed her PhD program at University of Southern California. Tomasi, whose research focus is cancer and alcohol abuse, will begin her faculty career at USC in July as an assistant professor. They talked to Alhambra Source about their journey, commitment to contribute to the community, and the key elements of authentic Italian fare.
Why did you choose to open the restaurant in Alhambra? LT: We chose Alhambra, first, because it’s close to USC. The day we came to visit this place, we realized this is the best area. It’s close to downtown and close to our house. We like Alhambra. It’s a nice and quiet place with nice people.
What do you enjoy most about Alhambra? LT: When I moved to Alhambra alone during my first year here in 2007, I felt safe. I didn’t have a car then. I used public transportation. My life was dedicated to just Alhambra and USC. What was impressive was, the people here are very friendly. There’s never any kind of trouble. City Hall has supported us so much. They’re very professional and well organized. It’s a nice community for businesses. We also got a lot of support from the Chamber of Commerce.
FS: We also love the Asian food that is here, especially Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
LT: Half of our heart is Italian, the other part Asian. We’re well integrated with the community and traditions. 50 percent of our friends here are Asian, including my boss and coworkers at USC. We feel a part of this community.
What was the community like where you used to live in Sardinia?
LT: We are from northern Sardinia, the second biggest city in Sardinia. Sardinia is a very traditional community, a fusion between Latin and Chinese cultures. Family relationships are very strong. We have to discuss everything together. There’s also an incredible respect for people who are not a part of your family. As for the cuisine, Sardinia is a big island. More than 60 percent of our cuisine is made up of seafood and vegetables.FS: Chef Dessena is my best friend from when we were teenagers. We are like brothers.
What makes Italian cuisine authentic?LT: We try to teach people what makes Italian food authentic. In Italy, to be authentic means to be made in Italy and organic. We never use pesticides or hormones. We use extra virgin Italian olive oil, parsley, and a little bit of garlic. These are the three common ingredients we use to increase the flavor of our food. We never use sauces just to increase the flavor. Fifty percent of our dishes are made of Italian tomato sauce made by the chef. We purchase vegetables from farmers that grow organic vegetables. We buy all of the fresh seafood from Asian importers outside of California. The clams, crab, shrimp, and lobster we buy are live. Our meat, such as rib eye or filet mignon, is directly from local farmers.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far to open and maintain the restaurant?
LT: Here, we have to teach people what authentic Italian food is. We have to be patient because this will not happen in one week. Francesco sold the restaurant in Italy for love, for me. Sometimes I feel sorry because the restaurant that he owned in Sardinia was successful. But we are here, and we will duplicate what we had before.
Caffè Italiano is located at 7 S. Second St., Alhambra, Calif., 91801. It’s open Monday – Sunday, 8:00am – 10:00pm. Connect with Caffè Italiano via Facebook.Interview was edited and condensed.