By Vickie Lewis
One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the restaurant reviews for Contra Costa Marketplace is the opportunity learn about and visit excellent culinary venues that I never even knew existed. Such is the case of Café Gran Milan, which celebrated its one year anniversary on April 18, 2016. Nestled in an unlikely location in the Central Avenue Center on Jacuzzi Street in Richmond, Café Gran Milan is like an oasis in a largely industrial area. With neighbors such as 101 Auto Body, Jacuzzi Hot Tubs, The Floor Store, and the Painter’s Pot, it is definitely “off the beaten path,” accessible via the frontage road next to I-80 West near Central Avenue in El Cerrito. But it is definitely worth seeking out if you want to treat yourself to a casual, authentic Italian experience unlike any other I’ve experienced in the local area.
Café Gran Milan was founded by two brothers from Northern Italy who are well-experienced restaurateurs, Ivo and Rufo Verga. Ivo studied culinary arts for four years at a prestigious Italian school with an emphasis in becoming a pastry chef. In addition to Café Gran Milan, Ivo owns two similar restaurants near Varase, Italy. Rufo, a retired professional football (soccer) player, who represented Italy in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, previously owned restaurants and pizzerias in Italy after his sports career ended. He emigrated from Italy to the United States in 2008, and has owned and/or operated several restaurant venues in the Bay Area, including PIQ (Pane Italiano Qualita) Café, Bakery, and Pizzeria, located on Shattuck and Addison Avenues in Berkeley. Ivo came to the US last year when he and Rufo partnered to open Café Gran Milan. They made a bet as to whether they could make their venture a success in the chosen location. Although I’m not sure which of the brothers won the bet, their patrons are clearly the big winners as a result of their efforts!
The café occupies a relatively small space in the industrial center where it is located. Upon entry, patrons are visually greeted by the counters filled with wonderful sweet and savory offerings that are baked/prepared fresh daily on site by Ivo, Rufo and their small staff. Behind the counter, guests can see the bakers hard at work in the well-lit and very clean kitchen area, preparing old fashioned Italian recipes from Milan and Northern Lombardy regions. The interior dining area is cozy and a bit crowded, with only four small tables and chairs and a few counter seats along the window. Outside, a covered “gazebo” has been erected for warm weather dining, under which four more tables offer overflow seating. Due to the compactness of the interior, it is not unusual to see a queue line streaming outside the front door of Café Gran Milan. In spite of its obscure location, the café has amassed quite a following in the short time it has been open.
There are quite a lot of menu items offered by this small business suitable for breakfast, lunch, or anytime dining. For breakfast, the menu includes numerous savory breakfast sandwiches, quiche, ham and cheese brioche, croissants, smoothies, juices, fruit bowls and yogurt parfaits. They serve Felmoka Italian roasted Artisan coffee, made in Varase, Italy, and also sell bags of the coffee beans in the café. A full range of hot and cold espresso drinks are also available, as well as an assortment of teas, sodas, bottled water, and juices. The lunch menu includes numerous fresh salads, made-to-order pizzas and pannini sandwiches, Foccacia bread, and soups. All breads and pizza dough are made fresh on-site daily by Rufo. Occasionally, other lunch items are available, such as home-made lasagna and calzones. Always available are an assortment of luscious Italian pastries which customers admire as they contemplate what to order. The chalkboard menu boards mounted on the wall only include a fraction of the items offered at Café Gran Milan. They usually have printed menus available, but they were being reprinted at the time of this review, in order to add a few new items.
My guest and I visited the café twice to gather information for this review because there was so much to see and so many questions to ask about the various items offered. (Of course this meant we had the chance to try different items on each visit!) Our first visit was on a Friday afternoon around 2:00, and when we arrived, there were no customers at the counter, although three of the four tables were occupied. We sat down briefly to review the menu boards, and within two minutes, there were at least 10 customers queued up in a line to place orders. The lone cashier and server at the time, Myra, handled the “rush” calmly, and with finesse, patiently describing the various pastries to each patron who inquired. Although a steady flow of customers followed, we managed to order a sausage and pepperoni pizza for lunch. We also ordered an Olive Stick, one of the café’s most popular selling items–a long, soft break stick with small green olives baked into the dough.
My friend enjoyed the bread stick more than I, as I found the green olives to be a bit salty for my taste. I think I may have enjoyed it more with black olives. The pizza, however, was absolutely scrumptious! Baked with a thin crust like true Italian pizza, the hot, steamy, cheesy pizza had excellent flavor! It was hard not to devour the entire 14” pizza at one sitting; however, we resisted so that each of us could sample a pastry for dessert. One of the reasons the pizza may have been so excellent (besides the fact that it is made with all fresh ingredients) may be that Rufo and Ivo make their own sausage for the café because they prefer less fennel than is typically found in prepared sausage. Whole pizzas can be purchased to eat in or to go with your choice of ingredients. The base cost for cheese pizza is $9.50, and each added item costs $1 extra. There are a couple of specialty pizzas, such as chicken and pesto, or Prosciutto, which have a base cost of $13. Pizza is also sold by the slice for $5.95 – $6.95.
If I haven’t enticed you thus far to visit Café Gran Milan, the following information should definitely make you want to go check it out! The Italian pastries available here are seemingly innumerable and each and every one looks luscious and inviting! The pastries are Ivo’s specialty, and while some items are available daily, he frequently makes new pastries to test their popularity with the customers. All of the ingredients used to make the pastries at Café Gran Milan are sourced directly from Italy to ensure the highest quality products and authentic Italian experience.
We learned that apple strudel is a definite customer favorite, as are the traditional Italian sfogliatelle, sea-shell shaped treats with several layers of crisp, flaky pastry, filled with ricotta cheese and candied orange. Also popular are the cannoli, Tiramisu, crème puffs and eclairs. Other items available include (but are NOT limited to) assorted croissants (plain and filled); assorted strudels, including the popular blueberry and cheese; chocolate pear puffs; Italian bignes, including one filled with Nutella; bear claws filled with home-made almond paste; fruit tarts, chocolate sponge puff pastry cake, crème horns, and an assortment of serve-yourself fresh baked cookies. There are also assorted small and large tarts/strudels in various flavors. I purchased a blackberry tart to share with my family and everyone loved it—it sure didn’t last long! My guest tried one of the smaller apple tarts, and I opted to also try the Pastiera Napoletana, which is less sweet than the fruit tarts. The Napoletana is made with barley, ricotta cheese and candied orange. Each of the tarts was beyond wonderful! The pastry crust is the best I’ve ever eaten and the fillings were the perfect consistency, flavor and sweetness.
On our first visit, my guest chose a cannoli for dessert, and I chose a crème horn (because they had run out of cream puffs.) My guest thoroughly enjoyed the cannoli, which had a crispy outer shell, and was filled with rich, creamy marscapone, topped with small pieces of candied orange, giving the pastry a slight orange flavor.
My pastry horn was filled with creamy, rich, yellow custard topped with a slice of strawberry. Both desserts were decadent! On the second visit, we split an apricot croissant and a plump bear claw. The croissant was fresh and flaky, and generously filled with a not-too-sweet, yet flavorful apricot mixture. But my favorite of all of these was the bear claw, which had the most amazing almond paste filling that I’ve ever eaten! It was so good that I had to stop and savor each and every bite.
This small, local business has rapidly established itself in West Contra Costa County and the surrounding areas. On top of their thriving in-store business, they also offer catering services. They are contracted frequently to cater for Chevron and Kaiser Permanente Lab, and they also bake rolls and other items for a few select stores and delicatessens. On weekdays, their busiest time is between 10 AM and 2 PM, but the business is steady throughout the day. On Friday mornings, they are very busy as customers come by to pick up treats to take to their jobs. Surprisingly, Saturdays tend to be their busiest days, even though many businesses around them are closed. With a small staff of only five in addition to Rufo and Ivo, Café Milan produces high quality Italian fare, making it seem effortless. It is clear that they all enjoy their work, and it is equally clear that their customers are happy to have them in the neighborhood. The service is awesome, the staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable, the selections are many, and the atmosphere is pleasant. Once you enter Café Gran Milan, you’ll forget that you’re in an industrial area, and for a short time can experience the ambience of an Italian café right here at home. Maybe I’ll see you there sometime! Ciao for now!
5327 Jacuzzi Street, in Richmond | 510-985-0679
Hours: Open Monday through Friday 7 AM – 7 PM | Saturdays 8 AM – 5 PM | Closed Sundays