At Pura Vida, sense of family beckons
By Lou Fancher
At Pura Vida Cocina Latina & Sangria Bar, the name means “pure life,” but the experience is all about the magnificent family feeling.
Owner and Livermore resident Gianni Schell says the restaurant’s Latin American cuisine honors his mother’s Colombian ancestry and his childhood growing up primarily in Queens, New York. Influences from Colombia, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica and Spain infuse the paella, tamales, pupusas, tacos and other dishes on the eclectic menu.
Opened in April 2016, the restaurant features specialty sangrias and predominantly Livermore Valley wines. A recently acquired liquor license will introduce mescal and tequila to expand the offerings.
Schell also owns the nearby Sanctuary Ultra Lounge. He learned the ropes of food service as director/partner of Pacific Coast Events, an entertainment group the 47-year-old restaurateur launched in Berkeley and continues to operate. His experience with communal dining began early on.
“My mother was one of 12 kids,” he says. “They migrated and eventually ended up in Queens. Food wasn’t breakfast, lunch, dinner; it was all day, collective contributions.”
In the kitchen, backyard and front porch of the host’s home at weekly family get-togethers, Schell’s family ate in the moment, whenever food was ready. His grandmother’s arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) was a favorite, as were the plantainos.
“They’re sweet, pan-fired plantains. We’d wonder each time, ‘Will she make them?’ We’d hear the pan start searing, and that sizzle would tell us it was coming out,” Schell recalled.
Attending UC Berkeley, Schell wound up playing chef in the fraternity he joined. “I dabbled, tried family dishes and failed miserably.”
Eventually, Schell latched onto a fellow chef and learned to cook seafood. Paella, he says, has become his signature dish now that he no longer adds the shrimp too early. “By the time the rest of the ingredients were done, the shrimp used to be like rubber.”
Even so, he’s still learning. “At a Christmas a few years ago, I thought I’d mastered a dish, but it had way too much salt. The family all took nice big plates and ground through it. They were polite and appreciated the effort.”
Part of growing up in a large family, he suggests, is finding workarounds. Because Pura Vida has space only for a stovetop, convection oven, outdoor grill and paella pan, co-chefs Matt Franco and Chris Davidson rely on outside intervention. Schell’s son and another chef at Sanctuary prepare the empanadas.
“The great thing is that Colombian food takes hours to make and then is finished off at the last minute. They do the made-from-scratch dough and almost finish them. At Pura Vida, we bake them 10 minutes, and they’re done.”
Similarly, the El Salvadoran pupusas and Oaxacan chicken tamales are made by hand-picked vendors whom Schell engages for their long history and expertise. But the menu’s top seller is entirely in-house.
“It’s our mango salsa. Anything we put it on dominates the menu. We go through 20 pounds of diced mangos in a week. Originally it was just a side dish with plantain chips,” he said. “Now, customers ask for it on everything.”
Schell said that operating a restaurant has been an education. Livermore customers are dedicated to local purveyors and ask specifically for wines locally produced. In Pura Vida’s early days, people sometimes entered expecting Mexican cuisine and departed when the Latin dishes perplexed them. Adding tacos to the menu fixed that problem.
Giving back is “big for Colombian Catholics,” he says. Children’s and women’s health nonprofits and other organizations that “pop up and are near to my heart” receive donations of food or gift certificates. “One of the best feelings is to help less fortunate people,” he says.
He recently spent eight days in Haiti on a mission. “As much joy as I’ve gotten, there were people who’ve actually moved there who’ve done far more. It was seeing them that was happiness. It’s important to give back.”
In the end, he says comfort in life boils down to ambience. Good lighting, pleasant surroundings, fine food, people who project enthusiasm and capability — and of course, that magnificent family feeling.