Entering Cafe Gran Milan, an intimate wonderland of artisanal baked goods, will trick you into thinking you have been magically transported to Northern Italy. On the way out, the cafe’s eclectic neighbors in Richmond’s Central Avenue Center on Jacuzzi Street snap you back to reality.
Yes, owner Rufo Verga, the master behind all the Italian delicacies, admits his cafe is in a “strange location” among a hot tub showroom, auto body shop, martial arts studio and fabric store, but his loyal customers do not mind the surroundings, as they linger over coffee and a pastry, or when they come by to pick up panini or pizza for lunch.
Cafe Gran Milan: 5327 Jacuzzi St. (near Central), Richmond is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Verga started playing professional soccer at 17 and represented Italy at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. But injuries scuttled his career, and, at age 28, his doctor told him he was done playing. “Too many surgeries,” he said. “I needed a job.”
So Verga tried his hand at baking and discovered the art of kneading dough, laminating pastries and mixing batter suited him. He found people to train him and watched others. “I learned little by little,” he said.
He honed his skills in Italy until a friend suggested moving to California. Verga tested the idea by visiting San Francisco for a couple months, and he fell in love with the city and decided to stay. He returned to Italy to acquire a visa, and came back to live in California in March 2008.
By 2009 Verga had gone into business with a partner to open PiQ (Pane Italiano Qualita) Bakery on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, and the popular eatery lasted until 2013.
“We worked together twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “We were like brothers.” It was at PiQ that Verga expanded his repertoire from savory items and learned to create pastries and sweets.
The partners branched out, including opening a Cafe Gran Milan in Sacramento and opening the Richmond cafe by the same name in 2015. “The first three to four months were a struggle,” Verga said. They chose the Central Avenue Center because the rent was more affordable than at other commercial centers. After six months, word started to spread that this oasis existed in the midst of home decor showrooms and electrical supply stores. Verga relied on social media to attract business, and a favorable review early on “doubled the number of customers.”
After his partner returned to Italy in 2018, Verga sold the Sacramento cafe and took over the Richmond location completely. “I live in Berkeley,” he said, “and the distance was too much.”
At the onset of COVID the cafe closed down for only three days, and, other than a reduction in hours, operations have remained unchanged post-pandemic.
In order to produce all the baked goods each day, Verga wakes at his Berkeley home at 1:30 a.m., has his coffee, and makes his way to the cafe by 2 a.m.
Early-morning customers find a beautiful array of traditional Italian treats, including cornetti, cannoli (in two sizes) and bomboloni. For his sfogliatelli riccia, a flaky pastry in the shape of a baby lobster tail, Verga imports the ricotta and orange peel from Italy. Puff pastries in the shape of camels are topped with sliced apples or other seasonal fruits. Little tarts are adorned with jewel-like berries. Slices of limoncello cake, tiramisu, whole cakes, tarts, small pies and other delights beckon from a glass display case. A piece of lemon cake or a bombolone for breakfast? Who’s to say no?
Although he claims to be “not a sweet person,” as he was trained to make more savory items, it’s clear that Verga has mastered the art of the sweet as well. His recipes represent the flavors and traditional favorites of Milan and the regions of Northern Italy where he grew up.
The cafe’s large chalkboard displays the menu, including breakfast buns, ham and cheese brioche and a breakfast sandwich. He also offers panini (including vegetarian, turkey, roast beef, prosciutto di Parma and chicken pesto), several types of salads, pizzas and beverages.
Some of the more popular items, like Verga’s olive flutes, frequently sell out. The long, thin, individually crafted loaves are full of whole pitted green olives from Greece. These olives, says Verga, are sturdier than other types and do not get broken up by the mixer in the process. If you order one to eat right away, it arrives at the table warm, sliced into pieces and drizzled with olive oil. Olive lovers will not find anything better anywhere.
Just like the “old country”
First-time customer Joe Ianora from Concord, who returned from a year in Italy not long ago, swooned over the olive bread and the cannoli during a recent visit, remarking that it felt like being back “in the old country” again. He also enjoyed practicing his Italian with Verga and Zara Anvari, a frequent customer and sometime baking assistant at the cafe. She was born in Iran and immigrated to Italy where she studied with an Italian pastry chef. She loves the cafe, because “Rufo is friendly and knows how to make authentic Italian pastries,” both the sweet and the savory. Other Italian cafes, she notes, do not have the same authenticity. As with any small cafe, a lot depends on the way customers are greeted and made to feel welcome, something Verga and the staff do effortlessly.
For those who like to plan ahead, note that Verga also begins preparations early for traditional panettone and veneziana—made with orange, apricot or pineapple—for Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
The cafe has just enough space for a few tables inside with several more outside. Trucks rumble by and the auto shop is right across the way, but close your eyes, inhale deeply and pretend you are at a sidewalk cafe in Milan. Then tuck into that warm olive bread, or that better-than-a doughnut bombolone and enjoy.