By David Nelson
Photos by Sara Norris
At some restaurants, the only mystery is how they stay in business.
Bottega Americano is different.
By design, a mystery drives the concept of this eye-dazzling newbie in East Village , which occupies a cavernous space in the imposing edifice of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. As it happens, the mystery hides in plain sight, right where anybody who can read the sign can find it.
Bottega Americano is so bold, so big, so enthusiastically "there" that it smacks you in the face - nicely, like an Italian girlfriend might do in a playful mood, but there's no getting around its strong, cool, dramatically focused presence. Inspired by the 1950s and '60s, the concept seems at odds with its surroundings, a distinctively 21st century building rising above a neighborhood festooned with construction cranes. But the freewheeling mood, captured near the restaurant's seafood bar by a mural of black-and-white photos of mid-century Italian film stars, suits hipper-by-the-day East Village like new designer jeans.
If none of the partners remembers 1950s America, they like what they've heard. The group's godfather, Director of Operations Giuseppe Ciuffa, grew up in a village Southeast of Rome, came to San Diego in 1994 and became a prominent caterer and restaurateur. New Jersey-born and bred Executive Chef Dave Warner wore the top toque at Tower23's JRDN Restaurant (Pacific Beach) for some years before crafting the restaurant's regional American cuisine. Originally from Los Angeles, widely traveled General Manager Greg Van de Velde worked 12 years at Bertrand at Mister A's and is the founder of the consulting firm Culinary Conceptions. The sole San Diego native among the foursome, business expert Chad Ruyle is Managing Partner. He also owns downtown's landmark Dobson's Bar & Restaurant.
Setting out to create what Ruyle calls "a new concept for San Diego with different components," the partners hired West Hollywood designer Thomas Schoos to map an interior that gradually broadens from the entry's cozy "bottega," or marketplace, to a grand space with soaring ceilings and galaxies of geometric hanging lights.
A sea of traditional four-tops and high-rise communal tables, variously topped with marble, copper and steel, washes up against the many destinations: A dramatic corner bar backed by reflective black tile, where Snake Oil Cocktail Company barkeeps spray bourbon-based Ventimiglia cocktails with cinnamon-cedar cologne; a salumeria with a marble counter for enjoying fine cheeses and cured meats; and busy open kitchens that flank the immense, fearsomely fiery pizza oven (whose captain may agree to bake dessert pizzas spread with Nutella).
Layers of firewood stacked in massive, square columns reference the pizza oven's flames. Past this, a pasta kitchen is curtained with multicolored strips of fettuccine. And finally, the iced displays and sleek wooden counters of the pescherialcrudo bar allow oysters, jumbo shrimp and house- cured salmon to compete with extravagantly flavored appetizers of raw scallops and yellowtail. Because tutti e bene (all is good), patrons never puzzle about what to order.
As for the mystery...
Romance languages require nouns and adjectives to agree in gender. Words end with the letter "a" are often feminine ("o" is masculine), so something clearly is afoot with Bottega Americano. You might conclude it means "American Boutique," except it doesn't.
"The bottega is the place where I can share good things," says Warner, and his remarkably flavorful eggplant caponata sells briskly. "We made the market an extension of the kitchen, so you can re-experience dining here by opening your refrigerator to the scents and smells of Bottega Americano."
"Our vision for the marketplace is that we have our own products - infused olive oils, truffled honey - and also Italian imports that are hard to find elsewhere in San Diego," says Ruyle. "And we support local artisan producers." But how about Americanos? It's Ciuffa who spills the fagioli.
"An Americano is the Italian immigrant who came to the United States in midcentury, in the 1950s and '60s," he says. "This immigrant was very ignorant, no English spoken, but he did well. And when he went back to Italy to visit and brought a piece of American culture with him, he would be labeled 'The Americano.'"
So is Ciuffa a late-arriving Americano? Seems so.
"Myself, I came to San Diego with nothing," he says. "I was working for little pay. I had a boatload of experience but I had to start over from scratch."
Now he operates an immense establishment that buzzes from early morning coffee and pastry sales in the bottega, to late- evening nightcaps ordered by neighborhood residents. Evidently, the energy electrifies everybody.
"Every day, we go full blast," says Ciuffa, to which Warner adds, "The kitchen usually is firing on all cylinders," which seems to prompt Ruyle to say, "Sempra Energy is coming soon."
Bullish on their trajectory, the partners expect a current of business to flow from the energy company when its gleaming new headquarters rises a few blocks west on J Street.
Says Ruyle, "There's more development in East Village now than anywhere in the county. We're pleased to be at the forefront, pushing the neighborhood." And feeding it very well.
1195 Island Ave., East Village