New Times San Luis Obispo

Italian Master Chef Giovanni Grillenzoni finds new home for Harmony Café in Cambria

Dinner and a movie?

Hayley Thomas Cain Sep 28, 2017 4:00 AM

You may remember Harmony Café owner Chef Giovanni Grillenzoni from his famous location in the tiny town of Harmony nestled between Cambria and Cayucos. You know: Population 18, if you count the cows?

There, in that quaint, storybook village of glassblowers and longtime locals, the Modena, Italy, born master chef developed a glowing reputation as one of the Central Coast's best kept culinary secrets.

Photo Courtesy Of Harmony Café
THE PLOT THICKENS Each Monday night, an Italian master chef is churning out incredible gourmet eats paired with classic flicks in Cambria. His name? Giovanni Grillezoni. His game? Making you very, very happy, indeed.

Fans adored the fact that his brisk and affordable gourmet menus changed weekly, always typed up fresh on the trusty antique typewriter.

"I believed in Harmony, and I put my heart into that café. It was going incredibly well," the chef said. "Who doesn't love Harmony?"

When the cafe—which opened in 2012—shuttered due a change of town ownership, Grillenzoni looked to relocate to an equally magical setting.

But, there was the rub. After idyllic Harmony, where could one find such utter fantasy?

The chef knew the new location had to be near the coast, had to have lots of character, and had to be cozy.

Anyone familiar with the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria can attest that this "jewel box" by the sea exudes these attributes in spades.

A new Harmony Café was born.

Situated just next to the beloved theater, Harmony Café at the Pewter Playhouse features a welcoming dining room and brand new kitchen. The food—those garden fresh soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees made with heaps of Old World Italian love—have not changed one bit.

Photo Courtesy Of Harmony Café

A menu from earlier this year offered up fresh handmade taglioline pasta with butter cream sauce, local broccoli, organic chicken, and Parmigiano Reggiano; lamb carpaccio with sun dried tomato, artichoke, olive oil, lemon juice, and olives; fresh burrata and pesto; and pancetta-wrapped pork filet with caramelized apple, each for less than $20.

A more current dinner menu showcases much of the same deliciousness without the high price tag: black linguine with lobster, homemade eggplant gnocchi, and braised free range veal osso buco with veggies and risotto, to name a few mouth-waterers.

I asked the chef just how he manages to survive these days, considering the anemic trickle of tourists to the area. Highway 1 still faces major closures, and the chef continues to use only the highest quality ingredients—often working with a local Cambria farmer to find the very best organic produce.

"Well, it's just me in the kitchen!" Grillenzoni answered along with a signature good-natured belly laugh. "I have a beautiful lady who serves for lunch and dinner; I have a part-time dishwasher come in when I need him, or I clean the dishes myself. It's no big deal. I am keeping myself extremely busy."

I'll say. The locals are noticing Grillenzoni's efforts, too. In his 35-year career as a chef in the U.S., he's worked at some of the most important restaurants in Southern California and beyond. Safe to say this guy's got a few tricks up his sleeve.

Those magic tricks include: adding a local jazz piano player to the mix, who tickles the keys while you eat (talk about old-school charm). On Monday nights, you can also sit back and enjoy that perfect date night combo: dinner and a show.

No, not a theater performance, like you might expect. The chef is screening movies, and old ones, at that. Like his dusty typewriter, these flicks have lots of life left to give.

Photo Courtesy Of Harmony Café
BELLISSIMO! Old World Italian love is tucked into every soup, sandwich, and entree at Cambria's Harmony Cafe at the Pewter Plough Playhouse.

"We installed a new screen, speaker, and projector to show the films in the playhouse. Every week, I choose a movie and design a buffet inspired by the film," Grillenzoni said. "You'll get a French movie with French food, for example. Next Monday, we have a film made in San Francisco, so I designed food surrounding that. I have 26 movies and counting."

According to the chef, just a few weeks ago, he plated a Sophia Loren-inspired dinner paired with the 1958 romantic comedy Boathouse. This is far from just a cute idea: Grillenzoni has actually met the Italian movie legend, known for her bombshell beauty and unabashed love of spaghetti (and all carbs, really).

"Years ago, when I lived in Thousand Oaks, I made a special delivery to her house in West Lake Village," Grillenzoni said. "For the movie, I made the same food that I created for Sofia Loren herself."

Do you want to taste what Loren tasted on that fateful meeting? Or perhaps you'd like to ply the chef with questions about the actresses' still stunning good looks?

You can try, but I have a feeling this chef will be very busy in the kitchen, doing what he does best. After all, it is not his job to entertain; that's what the films are for.

"It's my job to create the recipes and to create something for people," Grillenzoni said. "Something to make them very happy." Δ

Hayley Thomas Cain would love to go to Modena to slurp up the legendary balsamic vinegar straight from the source. She can be reached at

Editor's note: This article was revised to correct the spelling of Chef Grillenzoni's name. New Times regrets the error.