I catch up to Stefano Ceresoli after a particular busy dinner shift, where he's just turned out 120 plates in little over an hour. Sweat glistens on his brow as he pulls off his chef’s hat, sitting for the first time in hours. Rather than emitting the sigh that I expect, his lips widen in a broad smile, and he looks as if he could easily jump back into the kitchen and do it all over again.
"I'm an adrenaline guy," he tells me eagerly. "I need action." In a restaurant, he tells me, "you need shake-hands people and working people. I'm more of a working guy."
He certainly works hard. In addition to running Caffe Bella Italia in Pacific Beach, Stefano and his wife and business partner, Roberta, recently opened a second restaurant, an Italian-Asian fusion restaurant in Point Loma's Liberty Station. "It was a big jump for us," he says of the new opening.
It’s not the first big jump he’s taken. Stefano grew up in Milan, Italy, in a family of restaurateurs. While he easily could have gone straight into the restaurant world, he decided to take a different path, and went to school for interior design. It was after he graduated that he realized the kitchen was calling, and began to attend culinary school during the evenings. He eventually opened a bakery in Milan, and was working there when a certain customer—his future wife—walked through the door.
He met Roberta Ruffini because she decided to buy bread one day, a small, fateful event that would change the course of his life. It was their courtship that led Stefano to San Diego for the first time, when Roberta enrolled in a work exchange program and went to work for a hotel on Harbor Island. Stefano followed, visiting her for three weeks one summer. It was during that visit, stepping out of the airport terminal and seeing the harbor and the ocean that he realized, "this town is not that bad."
The couple returned to Italy for several years, but after the birth of their first son, they decided to move back to Southern California and open a restaurant. Stefano worked with a local real estate broker, who found them a small cafe in Kearny Mesa. Stefano describes how before he took on the lease, he went to neighboring businesses, introducing himself to the prospective neighbors and inquiring whether they would be receptive to an Italian restaurant nearby. Armed with a chorus of "yeses," Stefano set about opening the first Caffe Bella Italia.
Several years later, he was biking through Pacific Beach when he saw a "for lease" sign. He inquired about opening a second location, but the owner of the space told him "you won't survive in PB." Stefano convinced the owner to visit the Kearny Mesa location, to see how well the restaurant was doing. "God looked down on us," Stefano says of the day the owner came to visit. The restaurant was bustling and the food turned out perfect, and soon the owner came to him and said: "I want to give you a chance."
Then the hard work started. Stefano and Roberta took just five months to transform the space, ordering the furniture from Indonesia and hand painting all of the surfaces in the restaurant. When they opened, he says they had customers "right away," although it took a little time before they were constantly busy. Now, nine years after opening, he has proven not only that he can "survive" in the Pacific Beach neighborhood, but that he is a vital part of the community. The restaurant's customers are a collection of regulars, many who live in the neighborhood and return again and again. It's "incredible," Stefano says of the restaurant's success.
While he may find it incredible, success seems inevitable to a man with a hard work ethic and proud determination. Stefano always seems willing to work hard, and to ensure that his customers are satisfied. He is proud of the team he leads, knowing that he has trained them to "take care of the customer.” He makes an effort to source quality ingredients, including imported products from Italy, and has a good relationship with his suppliers. "First quality, then price," is his mantra when buying ingredients. He fondly remembers Italy, when he was able to go to a fishery, and touch and see the fish before he committed to buying it. He tries to get as close to that ideal now, by buying in small quantities, always looking for quality, and forging relationships with his suppliers.
Second to quality is the importance of customer service. He often leaves the kitchen to make a lap around the dining room, to see how his guests are enjoying the food. He encourages guests to give him feedback, and says "if you don't like something, knock at the window, give me a chance."
He admits that "It's not easy to please everyone," but always strives to try. He is happy to accommodate special requests, and says: "I'm open to everything." He does admit that he wishes he could convince some guests to at least try dishes they don’t think they will like. He also explains that, while he is usually happy to accommodate changes or modifications to the menu, it is hard for him to see a customer requesting something that "isn't even Italian food." For example, he tells of a guest who ordered fettuccini alfredo with chicken, and then asked if the kitchen could add sliced filet mignon on top of the dish. "Why don't you order the filet mignon after the pasta?" he kindly suggested to the guest.
"My next dream," he says with a smile, "is a small bed and breakfast, with culinary classes, and yoga and swimming, and a big table [for dinner] where everyone eats the same thing.” There would be no menus in the restaurant, and guests would all eat the same dish, based on what ingredients were the freshest that day. Stefano explains that if he found fresh clams he would announce “today I have maccheroni with clams,” and that would be the only dish he would prepare and serve. He would also like to see a restaurant where guests would have the opportunity to help prepare dinner, making dishes that they learned in a cooking class earlier in the morning. His goal is to have guests "share the respect for the food," and he thinks getting them to cook is the best way to do it. “I want people in the kitchen,” he says of his next endeavor.
In the mean time, he continues to strive to introduce the true Italian way of eating to American customers. He has enormous respect for the simple, rustic cuisine of his homeland, and the relaxed, laid-back style of enjoying it. "Food right now is so 'fancy,'" he says of what people are being exposed to through television and celebrity chefs. He also laments, “In the 2000's, everything's fast." He suggests that the table is a place to find an alternative to both of those, to experience “the old way of the food, to relax at the table.” He explains how Italians there often spend three to six hours at a restaurant on a weekend night. It’s "the slow food concept," he says.
After experiencing a meal at Caffe Bella Italia, I have a hunch that he is convincing at least some of his customers to slow down and savor. Seated in Caffe Bella Italia’s welcoming dining room, surrounded by warm tones and a lively setting, there seems no better way to enjoy an evening than to surrender to a relaxed pace, and a flavorful series of dishes prepared by Stefano Ceresoli.