Allegra California Café Lives Up To Its Name

I had a dear Chilean friend who, after enjoying a particularly scrumptious meal, would loll back and, with eyes slightly glazed and a blissful expression, invariably say, "guatita llena, corazon contento" (full tummy, happy heart). She would definitely have said that after dining at Allegra California Café, which opened August 16th at 4437 Sepulveda Blvd. in Culver City.

This casual, friendly restaurant is aptly named since "Allegra" is not only the first name of one of the owners, Allegra Perez, but also means "joyous" in Italian. It includes dog-friendly outdoor dining and is decorated with paintings by Allegra's best friend's mother.

"My husband, Mario Perez, is the chef and co-owner," said Allegra. "Mario was born in Guadalajara and came to the U.S. in 1994. He started working as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant, Bravo Cucina, on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and, over the course of a few years, worked his way up to be the chef of Bravo Cucina. In 2000 we met at Bravo where I worked as a food server and he was the chef. We married in 2002, and in 2008 we opened our first restaurant, Tortuga Bay, in Inglewood."

They still own Tortuga Bay, which serves Guadalajaran dishes. Allegra then described a dish evocative of Guadalajara that's served at Allegra California Café.

"Our Mexicana panini has Guadalajaran-style pulled pork simmered in a mild chile sauce with a hint of clove, a Perez family recipe," she said. "And while it is not a family recipe, Mario learned to make the world's best cioppino from an Italian chef who worked at Bravo Cucina and taught him authentic recipes."

I asked if they ever catered and learned that yes, indeed, they do, for all sorts and sizes of functions. "We served 700 people at Santa Monica College," Mario said. Turns out they also have a restaurant, Corsair Café, at the college. Talk about the American dream . . .

Their most popular dishes are a breakfast order, the Kale Quinoa Bowl (sautéed kale, red and white quinoa, black beans, mild tomato salsa, topped with over-easy eggs, sour cream and avocado; Grilled Salmon Aquapazza (tomatoes, kalamata olives, capers in a garlic white wine butter sauce served with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables); Mario's Signature Grilled Ribeye (chocolate chipotle port sauce, garlic creamed spinach and mashed potatoes); Fettuccine di Mare (shrimp, scallops, calamari, black mussels and clams in a marinara sauce); Rigatoni Allegra (chicken, mushrooms and a teriyaki cream sauce); and, for dessert, Brazilian Passion Fruit Mousse.

Are you hungry yet? I was, and had the pleasure of sampling a few dishes.

The calamari appetizer with lemon garlic aioli and spicy (but not too spicy) garlic marinara sauce was brought to me by their charming and very helpful server, Kristen. Hands down, it was the best calamari I've ever tasted, not greasy or rubbery. Two delicious pasta dishes followed, Rigatoni Allegra and Penne Genovese (basil-walnut pesto with a garlic wine cream sauce topped with marinated tomatoes). Allegra then joined me and we attacked their pear and gorgonzola pizza. It was beyond incredible, New York style with the thin crust I prefer. Imagine a pizza that incorporates Alfredo sauce, pear and gorgonzola, topped with fresh arugula and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. Pizza and salad – how's that for efficiency? This was all washed down with freshly brewed iced passion fruit tea.

"That pizza is one of my contributions to the menu," Allegra proudly proclaimed, "and the other is my mahi-mahi, and that's my recipe!" It's grilled with a pineapple rum butter sauce and served with risotto and grilled vegetables. Hmm, I'll have to plan a return visit.

I asked her what she and Mario felt was the defining feature of their restaurant that distinguishes it from others.

"We are quite literally a 'mom and pop' family restaurant for the neighborhood," she replied. "Family is extremely important to us and all our servers treat our guests like family and friends. All our recipes are made with love and care for our guests." They aim to accommodate their guests' various tastes and needs, including vegan and vegetarian.

Since Allegra had described the café as a mom and pop restaurant, I asked Mario if they had kids and whether those kids would be entering the family business. There are two children, a boy of seven and a girl of three. His eyes lit up as he mentioned that the boy already enjoys chopping vegetables.

When I wondered about the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of being restaurateurs, Allegra commented that "the most challenging part of the business is marketing and knowing where to spend precious resources to make the most impact and bring people in the door. The most rewarding aspect is seeing the same 'regular' guests come time and time again to try something new and work their way through the menu. It warms my heart to see our repeat customers, talk to them about whatever is on their mind and to hear such beautiful words of encouragement and support from them. 'Word of mouth' has truly been our most successful marketing yet!"

Don, one of their loyal repeat customers, stopped by and I had a chance to chat with him. He has certain dietary restrictions, describes himself as a pescatarian (one whose diet includes fish but no other meat), and is delighted to have a restaurant that is so accommodating to his needs. "They are so wonderful here," he said. "This is my favorite restaurant in the area."

He recalled a mushroom soup of the day that was "exceptional," and raved about a sole "that melted in my mouth." His favorite dessert is the Acai Bowl, with organic acai, blueberries, strawberries and bananas, topped with organic granola, coconut and honey.

At that point my dessert arrived, Brazilian Passion Fruit Mousse, light, slightly tart, refreshing, and the perfect complement to the first-class food I'd enjoyed.

My final question to Allegra was what message she would like to give to the community. Her smiling response was an enthusiastic, "Come!" Do. You'll be happy you did.

Allegra California Café

4437 Sepulveda Blvd.

Culver City, CA 90230

(424) 500-2700

Open daily 7 a.m. – 8 p.m.


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