Carlos Canales, Cornelio Ramos and Nelly Reyes were born and raised in Mexico, but for the past thirty years, their lives have revolved around Italian cuisine.
Along with Canales’ wife, Megan, they operate the recently rebranded Tarantella on 4th (previously La Tarantella Osteria)—a small Italian restaurant with a backyard patio in the heart of Retro Row.
Shortly after opening in October 2019, they faced a brand new restaurant’s worst nightmare—a pandemic.
And while they managed to survive that, they’re now facing a nebulous and competitive world of food influencers and social media marketing that they must learn to navigate to stay relevant.
That’s why they’ve chosen to rename their small Italian restaurant. And while they have a healthy amount of regulars, the operators plan to do a lot more to draw passersby inside.
The eatery’s struggles aren’t for a lack of quality and authentic Italian cuisine. After Canales immigrated from Mexico in the early ’90s, he started working in Italian restaurants. He, Ramos and Reyes, worked at L’Opera in Downtown Long Beach when Stefano Colaiacomo served as chef. Colaiacomo is a giant on the Italian cooking scene. At one point, he was a traveling chef for luxury car manufacturer, Ferrari.
Under Colaiacomo, they learned about wine, meat, and of course, pasta. They even became fluent in Italian, and it didn’t hurt that Canales was living in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in San Pedro at that time.
The group followed Colaiacomo to various restaurants before deciding it was time to open their own osteria. With financial backer and co-owner Dr. James Schmidt, they did just that.
And while their menu can truly be described as authentic Italian cuisine, Ramos takes inspiration from everything, including his Mexican roots, for special dishes.
“He’ll put Mexican herbs with Italian cheese, we’ll do a chipotle Alfredo and a rack of lamb with tamarind sauce,” Canales said.
Ramos once created a Mexican street corn tortellini with a lemon sage sauce.
Nelly Reyes is Ramos’ cousin and backup on the line. She’s also in charge of the restaurant’s dessert menu. “Nelly’s Tiramisu” is a made-from-scratch classic with a twist; it’s served with berries and drizzled chocolate.
The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but even when Ramos is not working, he’s working. Sometimes he feels pulled to spend his “time off” deep cleaning the kitchen.
“I love working here. Sometimes I’m just walking by and the restaurant is closed and I still come in,” Ramos said.
During the lockdown days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant survived off to-go orders, which Canales said is a testament to how supportive the community is of small businesses. Still, the restaurant has struggled to distinguish itself as a flood of new restaurants opened, many of which have a huge social media presence.
They know they can lean on their cuisine and dedicated staff to keep their returning customers; it’s getting them in the door in the first place that’s been the challenge.
“We didn’t have any money to do marketing,” Megan Canales said. “We’ve got something magical here between the food and the staff.”
Canales himself, who is admittedly “old school,” has been posting to Tik Tok lately to attract new customers. Learning social media has been no easy feat, but the group admits they would rather take the task on themselves than tap the shoulder of a food influencer or outsource by hiring a social media manager.
“It’s better to do it yourself to keep better control over the brand,” Megan Canales said.
But they face the same questions any social media user does. How many posts are too many in one day? How do we translate likes into filled reservations and paying customers? How do people find us?
They believe that part of the answer to those questions lies in just getting the word out about their new name. They also plan on making some aesthetic changes.
The other glaring issue is visibility. Since the restaurant is next to a pizza shop, Little Coyote, the restaurant is difficult to see at night because of the sign and dark interior, Megan Canales said. But they plan on lightening up the wallpaper so it’s easier to see what’s there. They also recently redesigned their sign.
Eventually, they hope to build a bar.
“We know the food and the service is good and we know we can lean on that,” Megan Canales said.
Tarantella is located at 2120 East Fourth Street. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and at 4 p.m. on weekends. Follow them on Instagram here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the opening hours of Tarantella on 4th.