Red sauce flows like wine in Little Italy, but it's not coming from the kitchen at Cookbook Tavola Calda.
Inside the 20-seat eatery, guests are faced with a pristine display case brimming with made-ahead dishes like salmon puttanesca and pesto lasagna. It's simple food made fresh daily, much like any tavola calda in Italy - a dining experience that's been likened to "cafeteria" and "fast food" genres. Though, aside from the style with which it's served, dishes at Cookbook bare little, if any, resemblance to either.
Here, owners Filippo Macchiarelli and Gregorio Pozzi - who met in Rome and have been friends since their teenage years - are challenging San Diegan's perception of Italian food. Dishes are lighter, more affordable, come in smaller portions and aren't beleaguered by salt. Italians like sharing, too, Macchiarelli says, and that's another reason why you won't find a big bowl of anything on the daily menu.
"Eating heavy - it's old," Pozzi says. "This is what's going on in Italy right now, not that. I think San Diego is ready for it."
He adds, "There's like five ingredients in everything. I believe that an average person can't taste more than three or four flavors at a time, so what's the point?"
Both Macchiarelli, 29, and Pozzi, 30, exude spicy Italian passion. Just ask "why is parmigiano reggiano the only parm worth eating?" and you'll get an exacting earful.
Diners can choose items a la carte from the menu's five sections: pasta ($8), entrée ($9), sides ($5), fried ($3) and dessert ($5), or, customize a $15.95-$16.95 three-course meal. There's a shaded patio with WiFi if you choose to eat in, and re-heating instructions for takeout.
Dishes like the daily risotto (mine had criminis and came piled on a thick slice of sweet, roasted tomato) and lasagna (both Bolognese and vegetariana) are early favorites. Then there's Peperoni ripieni: a halved and roasted organic bell pepper filled with Chianti-stewed ground beef, béchamel sauce and a little pecorino-romano cheese. It's everything to love about the simplicity of Italian cooking.
Fried items are a finger-licking bargain at Cookbook. These are, of course, all homemade to order, and include crispy artichoke hearts - no breading, just grated parm - and Macchiarelli's favorite, suppli, which is a ball of risotto filled with Bolognese sauce and mozzarella cheese.
"These, we are going to be known for," he says.
If that's the case, then Pozzi's desserts really are next level. The torta caprese is a warm chocolate cake, rich yet airy, with thin slices of almonds and bits of cookies that give it a brownie-like texture. It's topped with his very own creation - milk sauce, a sort of runny frosting that he says is like a "sweet béchamel." Do not miss this.
Happy hour happens twice daily; from 3 to 6 p.m. and then again from 9 p.m. until close (midnight). Eventually an online ordering delivery service will be available. Macchiarelli and Pozzi plan to diversify through catering and special cooking demos and events.
"We chose to open in San Diego for its Little Italy," Macchiarelli says. "It's the perfect place, because it's young and growing. Just like us."
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.