Filtered sunlight bathed the room in a warm glow, highlighting the menu of the day, hand written on a black board. Behind a wooden bar, a young guy was taking orders while a much older man cooked on a tiny gas stove top. White espresso cups were lined up on a red shelf next to glass jars filled with spices, all neatly labeled. The elegant sounds of Duke Ellington’s era played on a 33 turn table, a stack of vintage vinyl beside it.
I read the offerings on the blackboard: ravioli with butternut squash; mozzarella di bufala with tomato, capers and basil; grilled chicken on ciabatta with brie and pesto; and for dessert, tiramisu or imported gelato: fig, dark chocolate, vanilla, cherry, and espresso. My mouth watered as I recalled the last real Italian gelato I’d eaten in Rome.
The atmosphere, the menu…everything spoke of Italy. The service was informal, the food was fresh, and the clientele comprised 90% regulars. Even the out of town visitors were repeat customers who had stumbled on this gem of a cafe the same way I had. But I wasn’t in Italy, I was in California.
The first thing I asked the young man behind the counter was, “Are you Italian?”
“No,“ he replied, “but he is,” pointing to the much older man doing all the cooking. I knew it. Dakota introduced me to Giovanni, the owner, who immigrated from Modena, Italy over thirty years ago.
I wracked my brain for every word of Italian I could remember, though he spoke fluent English. Italians seem to sincerely appreciate anyone who tries to speak their language. That alone makes it worth the effort.
As I waited for my food, I took photographs of the cafe, Giovanni, and even some of the guests. I discovered that Giovanni and his home cooking are quite popular, and he has a regular following of not only locals, but visitors from all over the United States who stop at the cafe to eat his authentic Italian food.
I don’t often eat pasta, but I knew that Giovanni’s pasta was going to be the real deal, so I ordered the ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and a glass of pinot grigio to wash it down. The first bite transported me to Italy. An explosion of memories from prior trips flooded my senses.
I had some tentative plans to meet up with friends later that day, but decided I was going to stay and have an Italian experience. That meant no mindless eating – each bite is mindful. No rushing to be someplace else, instead just enjoying the meal, the ambiance, and the random conversations with other customers. I allowed myself to be in the moment. It was my ultimate travel experience – new place, friendly conversation, great food, and no agenda. I could have stayed there all day.
For dessert, I was torn between ordering the gelato or the tiramisu. In the end, I decided on the tiramisu, because Giovanni made it. Tiramisu, when made well, is light and creamy, in spite of being made with egg yolks, mascarpone cream, and ladyfingers, with just enough cocoa and caffeine to give you a little lift. In fact, the name tiramisu means little lift or pick me up. Need I say more? If you like tiramisu, you will love Giovanni’s.
Welcome to the Harmony Cafe, now called Harmony Cafe at the Pewter Plough, and newly relocated in Cambria, California.
A meal at the Harmony Cafe is a must when traveling Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County. Chef Giovanni will woo you with his passion for preparing and serving only the freshest, most delicious meal. With seemingly no effort at all, Giovanni serves up all the nuances of a true Italian experience. Before you’ve even finished your tiramisu, you’ll be planning a return visit.
When you visit, please do say hello to Chef Giovanni for me.
Know Before You Go
The Harmony Cafe at the Pewter Plough is in Cambria, not Harmony, located inside the Pewter Plough Playhouse.
824 Main St.
Cambria, Ca 93428