Guido Oppizzi immigrated to America from Italy only three years ago, bringing a deep love for traditional cooking from his homeland. But if you assume that means Oppi’z Bistro & Natural Pizza — his new State Street restaurant located in the longtime, though long-empty, home of Palazzio — is serving standard versions of pizza and pasta, think again.
“It’s much more modern and unconventional cuisine, but still deeply rooted in the Italian culture,” explained Oppizzi, whose eyes light up when sharing stories and discussing his favorite dishes. “Everything should be fresh and light. I really do not want to have food processed.”
Hailing from Pavia, a city south of Milan, Oppizzi previously worked for multinational companies as a director of organization and IT. He considered opening a restaurant in Italy, but the country’s economic woes didn’t make investing there a good idea. So he moved to Sacramento, near where his daughter, Linda, went to UC Davis, but then took a fateful trip to Santa Barbara two years ago.
“I immediately understood that this was a much better fit for my restaurant concept,” exclaimed Oppizzi, who got in touch with the landlord and said negotiations went smoothly. “And this town is so beautiful!”
He then focused on creating dishes that featured quality ingredients and clean flavors. The resulting menu displays a keen awareness of Santa Barbara preferences and offers a refreshing spin on traditional items.
Starters include a beautiful tartare duetto: One stack features raw tuna, which is common in Sicily, layered with diced apple, while the other includes salmon marinated in-house with dill and mango, which leans more toward local tastes. The fresh salmon from Santa Barbara Fish Market paired with the juicy mango and dill is the perfect palate primer for the fun flavors ahead.
Up next are the unique black rice bottles, served in a bottle-shaped dish. My favorite was the Pompeii, a dreamy combination of black rice, stracciatella cheese (a soft type of mozzarella), basil oil, organic mixed shoots, and squid, which was perfectly steamed instead of covered up in a deep fryer.
Even the ambiance is lighter than often dimly lit Italian restaurants, with fresh flowers and botanical paintings on the wall. Said Oppizzi, “I tried to bring the garden inside.”
With indoor-outdoor high-tops that open up to State Street, Oppi’z captures the bright Santa Barbara spirit yet retains respect for Italian roots. Oppizzi even enlarged a 19th-century Italian painting from his hometown to hang, and he sources many ingredients, such as flour, the entire wine list, and even silverware from Italy.
Ideas for the eye-opening menu are derived from his Italian roots as well, including their “black dough” pizzas, which contain activated charcoal in the crust. Both the black dough and original crusts retain a lovely crisp on the outside, a soft texture on the inside, and are never burnt, thanks to the even cooking of their electric ovens. The dough is naturally fermented and takes 24 hours to proof in house.
Toppings are added after the dough is cooked in order to ensure that the flavors of all ingredients are preserved. Unique combinations abound, yet I preferred the black parma, layered with homemade tomato sauce, mozzarella, stracciatella, prosciutto, parma, and arugula.
For those looking to add a touch of glamour to their pizza, the Oro Puro is a stunning creation of black dough, mozzarella, stracciatella, black lumpfish caviar, and 23K gold flakes.
Don’t miss the desserts, especially the Rita-misu, named after Oppizzi’s wife, Rita, who came up with the delectable recipe. A pediatrician, she still lives in Italy but plans to move to California if the restaurant does well.
We left the restaurant feeling happily full and surprisingly sprightly. “That’s how it’s supposed to be in Italy,” said Oppizzi’s daughter, Linda, with a smile. “You have your heart full, not your belly.”
1026 State St.; (805) 770-7390; oppiz-sb.com