In a town with 17 Starbucks it’s easy to forget the sense of community that pours out of an independent coffee shop. Fortunately for Mid-City residents there’s a new java joint in town, Café Lovi, serving top-notch Italian espresso and homemade challah sandwiches.
In a neighborhood marked by car dealerships and medical offices, the tiny coffee shop brings a much welcome sense of coziness and character. Although it’s only two months old, Lovi has already become a favorite gathering spot for locals.
At the helm of the operation is Benedetta “Beny” Jasmine Guetta, a food writer from Milan Italy, who has crafted the Lovi menu based on her love of Jewish-Italian cooking. Her right hand man is Christopher “Topher” Swall, a chef from Chicago who has worked at a range of Santa Monica restaurants including Birdie G, The Lobster and Native.
According to Guetta, her customer base largely consists of regulars, who rely on Lovi for their morning joe, catch-up session with a friend, or even musical instrument practice venue.
Part of this loyal following stems from the fact that the coffee shop was crafted with the input of residents in mind. Guetta, who had no prior experience running a business, took to the “Ask, Borrow, Give – Santa Monica” Facebook page for advice before opening and received over 100 responses.
Armed with this feedback, every book on coffee shops available on Amazon and a lifelong love of cooking, Guetta launched Café Lovi. In addition to its excellent Italian style espresso, the coffee shop offers a window into the little known culinary world of Jewish-Italian food.
“I truly grew up in a family that loves to cook, but that in Italy is not major breaking news,” said Guetta. “I think that coming from a Jewish family, in a way, makes the food more meaningful to us. For us, every holiday has its own traditional food… so the food has this culture and emotional meaning to it.”
Guetta grew up with her mother’s Jewish Italian cooking, but never thought of it as something particularly unique. It wasn’t until launching her own food blog that she realized how much curiosity and little information was out there about this culinary tradition.
“I would write my recipes (on the blog) for myself mostly and my best friend, and suddenly there was all this interest in the Jewish aspect to it because Italy has very few Jews, almost none. It’s like 40,000 of us in the whole country,” said Guetta.
Although the population is small, it dates back to the time of the Roman Empire and has had a strong influence on Italian cuisine. According to Guetta, the Italian Jewish population can be thanked for introducing the country to ingredients like eggplant and pasta styles like orecchiette.
Several Jewish-Italian dishes were born out of the historic oppression faced by the Jewish community. For example, Jews used to be subject to many economic restrictions and were prevented from buying certain quality ingredients such as large fish. Therefore, there are several traditional dishes based around small fish, which have an enduring popularity in Italy.
After her blog took off, Guetta dove deeper into the world of Jewish-Italian cooking and began traveling to Jewish communities around Italy studying the dishes of elders. These dishes will be presented in her upcoming book “Cooking alla Giudia.”
While the culinary pilgrimage she undertook to research the book was full of great food and fun, it was at times a very emotional experience.
“It was also sort of sad, because you can see how, especially younger generations don’t care anymore,” said Guetta. “You can see how there’s a beautiful tradition that does risk getting lost.”
Guetta hopes her upcoming book will help preserve this tradition and that the food served at Café Lovi will inspire more interest in Jewish-Italian cooking.
The menu at Lovi centers around sweet and savory challah dishes that are also available in gluten free versions.
Favorite items include the toasted challah pastrami sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, house-pickled cabbage and homemade mustard; and the toasted challah tuna salad sandwich with celery, red onion, capers, lemon juice and parsley. Sweet lovers will enjoy the cinnamon and raisins or chocolate chip challah buns as well as the bombolone Italian doughnut filled with vanilla custard.
Café Lovi also offers baked goods tied to the Jewish holidays, such as Hanukkah sufganiyot, and is available for catering orders. The cafe is located at 1912 Broadway and open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.