Thursday, February 24, 2011

All-American brunch at California Bakery

When I worked as a food critic at the Naples Daily News my least favorite assignment was writing about Italian restaurants. Being Italian and all, my expectations were so high I easily ended up disappointed. And it wasn't the chefs' fault, most of the time. It was just the ingredients. It was the produce. The water. Even the salt was different. The chefs —the smart and the worldly ones at least— knew it too. Many times, as I was chatting with them while we were both off the clock they would say "I know this dish doesn't taste the same in Italy." And I would nod, because it didn't. And I would feel for them because I encountered that same problem when I cooked the dishes of my childhood in my Southwest Florida kitchen. Nothing tasted exactly the same.

I felt kind of the same way while I was lazily walking downtown Milano towards California Bakery, where my best friend and I were headed for brunch. And it wasn't just a brunch. It was my first "Made in Italy" brunch. I wanted brunch to be good, but I would lie if I said that I wasn't a little apprehensive. Would brunch live up to my very American expectations? Would it be worth the trip and the price tag? I'm happy to say that the answer to both questions is yes. Brunch at California Bakery is enjoyable, tasty and definitely worth a trip downtown.

Brunch is served on Saturdays, Sundays and festivities from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., so there's no need to rush out of bed on the weekend to get served. Which, if you ask me, is really nice. A six hour brunch also dilutes the people throughout the afternoon, so there's never too much to wait for a table which is also a perk. California Bakery has several locations but, beware, they only serve brunch in three of them: Via Larga 19, Piazza Sant'Eustorgio 4 and Viale Premuda 44, so don't show up at the Largo Augusto store or you'll be disappointed (although you can still sit down and have lunch!) The Via larga store, the one we went to, is not very big, but the two story windows make it airy and bright, the white wooden floors and the green walls infuse the dining room with that peculiar calmness that just screams 'relaxing weekend brunch'.

Back to the food, though. California Bakery offers menu selections that are the closest you''ll  ever get to a true American brunch in Milano, so if you are looking for that all-American experience, this is the place for you. I know because I've looked at more than 20 menus around town and, ladies and gentlemen, I cringed. A lot. What's so difficult about brunch, one might ask? It's a good question. The answer is nothing, if restaurants owners knew what brunch is. Most of them don't and it shows. What they think brunch is, is an aperitivo buffet you serve at noon instead of during cocktail hour.

But that's not the case at California Bakery. No Sir. They know what brunch is and, for the most part, they stay true to American tradition and recipes. Now this will make many of you smile, but tell me that someone in Italy has bagels on their menu and you can bet I'll be practically running to give the place a try. What can I say? Bagels are delicious. Italian love bagels. And yet, they are not readily available, which of course makes them even more delicious in our minds. Because we can't get them.

So as soon as I saw that they had something called the University Plate (about 15 Euros, depending on what bagel or sandwich you choose), a big smile spread on my face. Although the offerings on the menu were plentiful I knew what I was going to have, and it had something to do with bagels and smoked salmon. Predictable? Usually I'm not like that at all, but after ten long months of bagel abstinence I was not going to turn down my favorite breakfast dish.

Because, let's face it, there's a lot to choose from at California Bakery. There's the Healthy Plate, featuring yogurt, granola and a homemade muffin; there's the Chelsea Plate, showcasing a generous slice of the quiche of the day served with mixed greens; and of course there's the more classic East Side Plate —scrambled eggs with bacon, hash browns and either a bagel or multigrain bread. Really, it all comes down to, there's something for everyone at California Bakery, including a Kosher Plate for those who need it. All brunch dishes come with complimentary sides —potatoes either roasted or fried and, a little oddly spinach— a basket of just-out-of-the-oven mixed breads with aromatic butters, a mug of American style coffee and a one liter pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Food quality is above average, especially when you look at other restaurants in town that have the nerve to call themselves American. Take it from someone who has lived and eaten enthusiastically in the Unites States for ten years: skip the others and go directly to California Bakery. The Club sandwich will make a big grin spread on your face, and so will the BLAT sandwich —a classic BLT with the addition of avocado.

My bagel was huge. Huge and delicious, stuffed with cream cheese, capers, slices of tomatoes and, of course, smoked salmon. Only one thing would have made it better: not having sesame seeds on it. I'm not a big sesame seed fan, especially when it comes to my bagel, and it would have been nice to know ahead of time —on the menu perhaps?— that tat's the way the bagel was going to be. The pancakes my friend ordered were fluffy and delicious and her eggs over easy were cooked just to perfection, as were the potatoes.

My only complain with California Bakery? The service. Don't go there in a rush because, although there's more than 10 waiters and waitresses working at every given time, they are slow, both to take orders and to deliver them . It's a small price to pay but trust me, if you really want a true American-style brunch head down to California Bakery this weekend. For an hour or so you will feel as if you are sitting somewhere along the Golden State.


  1. What a great review! You made me ready to pull out my knife and fork and pull up a chair. I'm so glad it met your expectations!

  2. It is nice to see a very positive and lengthy review after all the negative ones that I've seen, so perhaps you'll sway the minds of a lot of readers. I believe for the most part if that someone had a bad experience (one was about not getting hollandaise sauce on their Eggs Benedict) it was because the staff was not well-trained enough to know that if they're out of hollaindaise, better to let the customer know beforehand. As for the bagels....nope....they aren't the real thing, but I really think that this has more to do with the tastes of an american who is more accustomed to the New York type of bagel than anything else. Same thing goes for an italian eating italian food in America. It all depends on a person's expectations and what they are, or are not, willing to pay for to experience a slice of America.

  3. Well, the staff, as I said, is their biggest downfall. The only reason why they get away with it is that they are not in the U.S., because over there they would make no money and probably get fired shortly afterward. Did you like it when you went there?



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