Vegetarians have long sought refuge from meat at Italian restaurants, where there is always safety in pizza, pasta and buratta.
But for vegans, even Italian food offers few choices - what with the cuisine's reliance on eggs for fresh noodles, cream and butter for many sauces, and cheese for just about everything.
So when Calabrian-born brothers Dario and Pietro Gallo opened the charmingly whitewashed Civico 1845 in Little Italy last July, they filled a void for a growing number of diners.
From the start, Civico touted its vegan menu and quickly won a dedicated following. In fact, Pietro Gallo, who is vegan, said about 60 percent of the restaurant's clientele on Valentine's Day was vegan.
Ten days later, Civico unveiled a newly developed, extended menu co-created by Pietro Gallo and Italian consulting vegan chef Luca Zannoni. With 15 vegan main dishes, five appetizers and four desserts, diners who don't eat animal products no longer have to settle for just salad, soy burgers, grains and vegetables.
I had three meals at the always-crowded Civico. The first was off the regular menu, the second was a sampling of both the regular and vegan menus, and the third was exclusively from the new vegan options. The verdict? The animal-product free dishes are not only as good as the regular ones, they're actually better.
Perhaps it's due to the care and creativity coming out of the kitchen of this forward-thinking restaurant. Innovation requires focus and passion. How else would you get a dish like the warm Caprese salad, with shockingly creamy, delectable rice milk mozzarella? All I know is that as a sworn carnivore, I went into my most recent meal at Civico with an open mind - and promptly had it pretty much blown away.
Going back to that mozzarella: The look, taste and texture of it was identical to a cheese made from cow's or buffalo's milk. It was a triumph on every level, particularly texture, which is one the essential characteristics of that cheese. If you doubt it, try eating some freshly made side-by-side with one of the processed, rubbery bricks you buy at the grocery story.
Where: 1845 India St., Little Italy
Phone: (619) 431-5990
Pasta is the lifeblood of an Italian restaurant. And Civico's house-made ravioli, stuffed with basil pesto, were tender and packed with deliciousness. Crunchy toasted almonds on top gave them added flavor and fine texture. Puréed tomato sauce tasted simple and pure.
Gnocchi in fresh arugula pesto were so delicate, they practically melted on my tongue. Lasagna with seitan ragout, vegan parmigiano and béchamel was one of the better versions I've tasted in a while. Key to the lasagna was the seitan, wheat gluten that's known as "wheat meat." Its texture was spot-on meaty, as it was in the hearty fettucine Bolognese.
The same can't be said for the seitan strips filling in as chicken in the Sicilian-esque Straccetti Pizzaiola, with pasta, capers, olives, oregano and tomato sauce. One bite of that faux fowl was enough. Some things just can't be re-created. I'd add to that list the moderately mealy almond ricotta in the eggplant parmigiana. But those were my only quibbles after trying more than a dozen of the new offerings.
Among the standouts was the rich, no-cream, yet creamy, butternut squash soup topped with crispy onions, croutons and vegan yogurt. I could have eaten it by the ladleful. I loved the silky, faintly smoky, three-seed mayo that accompanied the beet carpaccio so much I had the heretical thought of how good it would be with a real burger.
At dessert, I couldn't stop eating the chocolate mousse, which is more akin to a pudding than a fluffy mousse. Deep, dark chocolate flavor was offset by a sprinkling of irresistible salted caramel gluten-free ginger cookie crumble. It was so good, I wouldn't be surprised to find out they accidentally forgot to hold the cream.
As my frequent dining companions can attest, I'm pretty confident in my palate and judgment, though I always incorporate their feedback in my reviews. But my lack of experience with vegan cooking made me a little hesitant in my assessment of Civico.
So I sought out the opinion of San Diego food blogger Anjali Lalani, a lifelong vegetarian and now-vegan, whose recipes and musings can be found on vegetariangastronomy.com. Sitting across from me on my third visit to Civico, I kept asking her, "This is really delicious - isn't it?"
Last week, Lalani named her favorite dishes that night, and they were nearly identical to mine. Her opinion of the restaurant as a whole has also similarly evolved.
"To be honest, in the beginning it was just OK. I met the vegan chef and appreciated what he was trying to do," she said. "I didn't really go back, though. I found myself gravitating toward other places."
Lalani called the revised menu a "huge improvement," with more depth; she found the food significantly more flavorful.
"I really like how they created their own dishes instead of trying to make vegan versions of Italian dishes," Lalani said.
"It wasn't just good vegan food; it was good food. It kind of blew me away, and I'm dying to go back."