American dream realized at Montclair eatery


OAKLAND TRIBUNE: November 11, 2011

Anyone who doubts that America is still the land of opportunity has only to look at Jose Trinidad Garcia, the new owner of Viva Voce Café at 5761 Thornhill Drive in Montclair.

“Trini,” as his friends call him, didn’t speak a word of English when he fled El Salvador’s devastating civil war at the urging of his mother in 1984.

“She was afraid I would be kidnapped and forced to fight with the rebels or the army,” he says, recalling how frightened and confused he was when he left his village to live with his brother in San Francisco. At the age of 14, he was forced to survive in a strange, new land.

Luckily, for Italian food fans and for Garcia, he found a home in the restaurant business. Out of high school he worked as a dishwasher on the Embarcadero and then, for 22 years, at the venerable Nob Hill Café.

“I never had Italian food growing up,” says Garcia, “except for spaghetti.” But he honed his skills as a San Francisco chef and then picked up more tips as he traveled through Italy. He bought Viva Voce in May from his friend and former boss, Anis Maamari.

You know something is right when you hear soft moans of delight coming from diners around you. As tenor Andrea Bocelli’s voice builds to a fevered crescendo, the connection between food and love becomes evident.

It begins with a glass of Chianti, complemented by a plate of delicious hors d’oeuvres. Waitress Amanda Flores brings out grilled prawns wrapped inItalian bacon, a marriage of savory and spice that instantly awakens the taste buds. Only the main course, fresh Alaskan sole sautéed in white wine and garlic, proves more seductive. It’s as if the Petrale sole has been kissed by the sea.

Garcia tops off the meal with a rich, chocolate ganache and two perfectly baked biscotti.

By this time, Dean Martin is singing “That’s Amore” and the room takes on the soft glow of sunset and warm terra cotta.

“This is your home,” says Garcia, as he comes out of the kitchen to say goodbye. “I want you to feel welcome here anytime.”

Like the country that welcomed him as a young immigrant, he opens his arms to his customers with the gift that only a man who knows food and love can give.

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