Will Cesarina help lift San Diego's Italian restaurant scene?

Tiramisù means pull me up in English, so named for its espresso-soaked savoiardi (ladyfingers) that give you a little after-dinner boost.

But I’d argue that the version of this Italian dessert at Point Loma’s month-old eatery Cesarina should be called tiranoisù — pull us up.

Not just because Cesarina’s dreamy, made-to-order tiramisù is among the best I’ve ever had. But because Cesarina just might help elevate the entire San Diego Italian restaurant landscape.

That’s a tall order for Cesarina’s three young Italian-born owners whose aim in opening the breakfast, lunch and dinner trattoria was unabashedly unambitious.

“Our goal was to have a restaurant where we’d want to eat,” said Niccolò Angius, 28, who hails from Rome.

Maybe so, but in the process, Angius and his partners — cousins Giuseppe Scognamiglio, 33, and Giuseppe Capasso, 38, both from Naples — have created a beacon for those of us yearning for more flavorful, properly cooked Italian food in San Diego.

Of the dozen or so dishes I’ve had from the assured kitchen of executive chef Patrick Money, 33, who is from Mantua in Northern Italy, nearly all of them shared the same quality — they tasted like Italy. And as I lamented in my Oct. 18 story, “For my list of Top 10 San Diego Italian restaurants, I could only find 7,” that’s an inexplicable rarity here.

Angius, Scognamiglio and Capasso are a playful threesome, who when together are constantly engaged in good-natured ribbing over who’s taller, who’s older, who’s the real boss, who’s tight with the purse strings. (For the record, the latter one would be Capasso, who’s in charge of the restaurant’s finances, while Scognamiglio runs the dining room and Angius oversees the kitchen.)

What they get serious about is the authenticity emanating from the kitchen.

“The food is coming out exactly how we wanted it to,” Capasso said.

On a recent Monday night, all the booths were filled with happy locals, while several tables were taken by several Italian-born local chefs and their families.

The previous night, Angius said, they had sold out of the lasagna, all 27 orders of it. “Can you believe that?”

I can. Much of the credit behind Cesarina’s pasta purity goes to the restaurant’s glass-enclosed demonstration pastaficio, or pasta factory, that’s the focal point of the airy, stylish dining room. The homemade noodles, ribbons, gnocchi and cut tubes go straight to the kitchen, where Money makes his magic.

Whether it was the spaghetti with pomodoro fresco, ravioli with mushrooms and a crispy parmigiano crumble, spinach pappardelle with shortribs or bucatini amatriciana, the pasta dishes I’ve sampled were prepared to al dente perfection and capped by an ultra-authentic sauce.

Some of those combinations were mine. Cesarina’s owners, mindful of younger diners’ taste for experiences while eating, have established a build-your-own pasta format. You choose the shape, the sauce and any optional toppings.

Ceding control of a dish’s makeup is the least Italian aspect here. In Italy, there are hard-fast rules on a pasta’s shape and corresponding sauce. Try to deviate or — heresy! — put cheese on pasta with seafood and you’ll likely be met with a disapproving “non si fa così” (it’s not done that way).

Angius said the trio considers the flexibility an evolution of Italian dining but concedes that not all customer-created pairings will be a tasty match.

“Our staff is very well trained to guide diners to what may work and what doesn’t, so hopefully there’s no … shrimp and prosciutto or short rib and shrimp,” he said, shaking his head before stopping himself. “But if that’s what the customer wants, that’s what they can have.”

What this customer wants is a lifetime supply of Cesarina’s tomato sauce. Not too thick or thin, not too sweet or acidic, nor overly seasoned, this marinara exemplifies how a simple preparation — done right — is an essential ingredient of a great Italian restaurant.

Whether with spaghetti, eggplant parmigiana or beef meatballs, that sauce raises straight-forward dishes to the next level. A slightly spicier one comes with the light-as-air, ricotta-stuffed fried squash blossoms.

While fundamentally steeped in heritage and tradition, Cesarina’s menu also reflects a next-gen pivot to modernity with such dishes as pulpo and caponata, in which the tender, grilled ocotopus is brightened by both a soulful romesco sauce and a tomato-less eggplant caponata in a lemon, olive oil, garlic and herb salmoriglio vinaigrette.

Successfully tweaking a standard shows a gutsy confidence that also extends to the sweet side. At only 23, Cesarina Mezzoni, the pastry chef and Angius’ wife, already has a self-assured ability to adapt classic confections to current tastes. She’s adding rosemary to her millefoglie, putting PB&J in a tart and anchoring profiteroles in a pile of cocoa crumble.

And she just might be changing the world with her tiramisù. Well, maybe just San Diego, but that’s enough. That ubiquitous layered dessert might have become a tired meal-ender elsewhere, but Mezzoni’s interpretation of it is giving it new life.

Prepared tableside, homemade ladyfingers are moistened by freshly brewed espresso poured from a Moka stove-top pot — the kind found in every Italian’s home kitchen. Sublimely creamy and light mascarpone is spooned over the top and then dusted with cocoa powder.

You can customize your order with more or less of any of the ingredients. But I’d suggest sticking with how Mezzoni intends it to be because her tiramisù tastes like the future.

Cesarina

Where: 4161 Voltaire St., Point Loma

Phone: (619) 226-6222

Online: cesarinarestaurant.com

michele.parente@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @sdeditgirl

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