Elisabetta Penso and Antonio Gerli are the owners of a good Italian restaurant in Isla Vista called “Sorriso Italiano.” Isla Vista is a part of Goleta where the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is located.
Elisabetta and Antonio are from Padua, and the story of how they came from Italy to California is very interesting. It began around 2011. Antonio was working for a company that made street lighting. Every weekend he and Elisabetta cooked for almost 100 friends and relatives, who kept asking, “Why don’t you open a restaurant?”
So then they asked themselves, “Why don’t we open a restaurant?” They did not want to open a restaurant in Italy for two reasons: There were already so many excellent restaurants in Italy, and then because the economy was not optimal at that time. Moreover, they were worried about the future for their children: Davide (aged 13), Sofia (11 years) and Filippo (8 years).
In 2011, Antonio flew to California and visited university cities from San Francisco to San Diego. His children had given him a list to evaluate each city. Then every night after he returned to his hotel room, he rated the cities he visited that day from 1 to 10 on factors such as weather, schools, safety, etc. Every day his wife and kids received an e-mail with Antonio’s ratings.
When Antonio arrived at UCSB, he followed the students on bicycles. He arrived at Isla Vista and thought that the place was perfect. Elisabetta arrived in Los Angeles in March 2012. When she arrived at Isla Vista, she fell in love with the place. The family moved to Santa Barbara that June.
Elisabetta and Antonio opened Sorriso Italiano a year later in 2013. The most difficult part was obtaining the visa. They had to submit more than 1,000 pages of documentation!
Sorriso Italiano offers traditional dishes both from the north and the south of Italy. (I tasted the penne with pesto sauce and lasagne bolognesi, and they were both excellent!) All of the food is prepared daily with fresh ingredients. Nothing is pre-cooked or frozen. In fact, they don’t even have a freezer except the one that contains the gelato.
Elisabetta and Antonio have very high standards about the quality of the food and the purity of the recipes. They have also learned a lot about American tastes in food. When customers asked for fettucine alfredo with chicken, Elisabetta was amazed! After 4 months, Antonio convinced her to give customers what they wanted. Today they give customers whatever they ask for—even pasta carbonara with meatballs, or lasagna Bolognese with ketchup—even though they remain a bit scandalized. As they say, “We could write a book!”
What doesn’t change is their philosophy about food: love, simplicity, and freshness. Running a restaurant is very hard. They work 7 days a week, often from 6 in the morning to almost midnight. But, as Antonio says, “We are satisfied that when we go to bed at night, we are happy because we are doing what we love to do.”
Sorriso won an award as the best Italian restaurant in Isla Vista in 2014. The address of the restaurant is 901 Embarcadero del Mar. http://www.sorriso-italiano.com. 805-324-4367. If you are interested in tasting the excellent food of Antonio and Elisabetta, you can also order take out.