For my list of Top 10 San Diego Italian restaurants, I could only find 7
Me: Well, this pasta isn’t very good.
Everyone: Why are you so picky about your Italian food?
Me: I’m not picky; picky means you can’t be pleased. I have high standards.
I’ve had a variation of that conversation for the 15 years I’ve lived in San Diego — especially over the past four months that I’ve been reporting this story on San Diego’s best Italian restaurants.
From Little Italy to La Mesa, Carlsbad to Imperial Beach, I’ve been on a carb-loaded, frustration-filled quest to find well-prepared, authentic-tasting Italian food. My goal was to find three — just three! — restaurants that could join my already existing list of seven places I love.
How hard could it be?
As hard as a wheel of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano apparently, for someone whose standards have been raised by being: Italian-American, with a Sicilian-born mother; from New York (Arthur Avenue, the Bronx’s Little Italy, no less); and has lived and traveled extensively in Italy.
The closure of two excellent downtown San Diego Italian restaurants — Bice in the Gaslamp (last summer) and Bottega Americano in the East Village (in February) — didn’t help my search.
Neither did the 12 or so rave recommendations colleagues and readers sent me. I did such due diligence checking out their suggested restaurants, I’ll be wearing yoga pants through the holidays.
RELATED: Readers respond, “I stirred the pasta pot with my list of San Diego’s best Italian restaurants — now it’s your turn”
I got excited when The Daily Meal’s list of “America’s 50 Best Italian Restaurants” landed in my inbox, but not one San Diego restaurant made the ranking. (Was the list credible? I had eaten at about 20 of the places on it and agreed with the choices.)
Meanwhile, within this four-month stretch, I went to L.A. twice and had great Italian food at Union and Terra (Sister: You’re eating your spaghetti one strand at a time, like you don’t want it to end. Me: I don’t!). I also had one of the best plates of pasta on the planet (Parmesan gnocchi with sweet corn, spinach and mushrooms) at Los Olivos Cafe in Santa Barbara wine country.
In fact, it seems like every time I have Italian food outside San Diego, it’s better than what I have here. We have plenty of good Italian restaurants but few great ones. Why? Here are my theories on why San Diego’s Italian restaurants aren’t better:
- The access to primo ingredients isn’t superior a few hours north but what chefs seem to be selecting is. Authentic Italian food is simple — the fewer the ingredients, the better — so the quality of those ingredients is essential.
- It’s not like chefs here aren’t trying, it’s that they may be trying too hard. So many dishes are overly complicated, overpowered by way too many ingredients, or with components that make zero sense in Italian food (spaghetti carbonara with brandy cream sauce?!). Often missing is the deft touch needed for delicacy.
- Heresy alert! Maybe San Diegans are just too nice and not demanding enough. After my umpteenth lament about another so-so Italian meal at a place someone swore I’d love, a friend likened the praise for mediocre food to the obligatory standing ovation after every show here. Bravo, you tried! How will the bar be raised if no one is calling for it to be raised?
Daniel Wolinsky, the chef de cuisine at Cucina Enoteca in Del Mar, said he’d put his pasta program up against any restaurant in L.A., but agreed that San Diego should up its game.
“They’re appealing to the American palate. They don’t want cacio e pepe (pasta with cheese and pepper). They want Alfredo with lots and lots of cream,” said Wolinsky, who studied under Italian pasta maestro and three-Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura.
“In order to make something simple so good, you have to use pecorino (Romano cheese), not BelGioioso (from Wisconsin),” he said. “We’re slowly transitioning our ideology to these perfectly beautiful ingredients and more simple executions for the dish. In order to do that, the quality of ingredients needs to be stepped up a touch. And what’s the skill set in the kitchen? You can’t just have someone who’ll just drop the pasta in the water — it has to be perfectly al dente, the pasta has to be dried out properly.”
Wolinsky said at a mega-popular restaurant like Cucina Enoteca, “the trend is make something more fun and different,” not necessarily simple and authentic.
And since restaurants, after all, are businesses, Wolinksy admits to restraining some of his ambitions. The aim is to give people what they want and not alienate them with, say, unpronounceable pasta shapes.
“It’s all reeled in and anchored by the clientele,” he said.
One San Diego restaurateur — who has an Italian restaurant that’s on my “if you’re in the neighborhood” list below — told me recently that he agreed with the notion that low customer expectations in San Diego are holding us back from becoming a better place for Italian food.
“They look at the menu and say, ‘What, no spaghetti and meatballs?’ Umm, no,” he said, shaking his head. (For the record, I love spaghetti and meatballs; it’s a quintessential Italian-American dish, just not an Italy-Italian one.)
If I haven’t stirred the (pasta) pot enough, I’m going to add this into the mix: Earlier this year, I had dinner at Olive Garden to satisfy a friend’s obsession to get the “Italian food snob” to eat at the chain. I didn’t have strong feelings for or against that meal, but I’ve thought about it a lot since. Like when I went to a highly recommended Italian restaurant in a hipster San Diego neighborhood and found it inferior to the popular chain restaurant. And when I found the same thing at a mom-and-pop place in North County that someone told me I just had to try. You get the picture.
But enough about the so-so scene in San Diego. Here’s my Top 7 Italian restaurants — ones that I think are worth traveling to, even if you live on the other side of the county. Except for my top pick — La Mesa’s Antica Trattoria — the list is in no particular order.
Then, there’s the aforementioned “if you’re in the neighborhood” list, where you’ll find inviting, sometimes very good, eateries.
I’ll also share the result of a poll conducted on our behalf by the Eating and Drinking San Diego Facebook group, which has 14,333 members. Our query generated 137 comments in two hours, so clearly there’s a lot of interest in Italian food. I don’t, however, agree with the bulk of the results.
The only Italian restaurant I regularly single out as my favorite, chef/owner Francesco Basile serves freshly made fare with a Sicilian’s flair. This perennially packed trattoria, located in a nondescript strip mall, is the kind of neighborhood gem we all want in our neighborhood. In the 12 years I’ve been going there, I’ve never had a disappointing dish. My must-tries include the meatball appetizer, the frittura mista of shrimp, calamari and artichoke, any pasta, eggplant parmigiana and the cannoli. 5654 Lake Murray Blvd., La Mesa. (619) 463-9919. anticatrattoria.com
Monzù Fresh Pasta
Open since May, this tiny restaurant/retail shop serves exceptionally pure tasting pasta, the simpler the better (cacio e pepe nirvana!) and with high-quality ingredients. That combination isn’t brain surgery. But it is magical. 455 10th Avenue, East Village. (619) 802-4355. monzufreshpasta.com
More Cal-Ital than outright Italian, Cucina nonetheless sets the standard for creative, contemporary cooking. Deliciousness runs throughout the menu and the outstanding wine list is affordable. Extra points for the Giant Meatball tasting most like my mom’s. 505 Laurel St., Bankers Hill. (619) 239-2222. www.urbankitchengroup.com/cucina-urbana-bankers-hill
Not just fine dining, but refined dining, Vivace consistently silences the critics of hotel restaurants with fearless, forward-thinking fare (campanelle pasta with braised whole pig, pine nuts, golden raisins and Calabrian chiles, anyone?). Vivace means alive; as is its cooking. At the Park Hyatt Aviara, 7100 Aviara Resort Drive, Carlsbad. (760) 603 3773. vivace-restaurant.com
San Diego’s best-kept secret, Biga bustles at lunch, but it’s at dinner, when the artful, artisan pasta appears on the menu, that this casual, farm-fresh eatery really shines. Carbo-phobes beware: the pizza and focaccia are also addictive; biga, after all, is Italian for dough starter. 950 6th Ave., downtown San Diego. (619) 794-0444. bigasandiego.com
Isola Pizza Bar
Though its La Jolla dining room is stylish and modern, Isola tastes like the old country. Inspired by chef Massimo Tenino’s nonna, Isola, dishes have a handmade, we’ve-been-doing-this-for-generations quality. The wood fire oven helps develop deep flavors in dishes like the charred octopus. Each pasta is true to its classic preparation. Also in Little Italy. 7734 Girard Ave., La Jolla. (858) 412-5566. isolapizzabar.com
A sentimental favorite, this grocery store on one side, restaurant on the other is a Little Italy institution. Mona Lisa’s marinara sauce is the hands-down best in San Diego — so good in fact, it’s the “Sunday gravy” I brought to my parents house when my mom couldn’t make hers any more. 2061 India St., Little Italy. (619) 234-4893. monalisalittleitaly.com
If you’re in the neighborhood
Bankers Hill: Mia Trattoria
Carlsbad: Spirito’s Italian Diner; Tommy V’s Urban Kitchen
Carmel Valley: Amici’s Ristobar
Chula Vista: Italianissimo Trattoria
Coronado: Il Fornaio; Maretalia Ristorante; Primavera Ristorante
Del Mar: Cucina Enoteca; Il Fornaio
Encinitas: Firenze Trattoria; Trattoria i Trulli
Escondido: Dominic’s Italian Gourmet
Hillcrest: Arrivederci, Maestoso, Parma
Imperial Beach: Verandina
Kearny Mesa: The Godfather
Kensington: Cucina Sorella
Lakeside: Italian Cucina (at Barona Resort & Casino)
Lemon Grove: Giardino Neighborhood Cucina
La Jolla: Catania Coastal Italian; Piatti
La Mesa: Cucina Basilico
Little Italy: Barbusa; Buon Appetito; Civico 1845; Davanti Enoteca
Otay Ranch/Eastlake: Savoie Italian Eatery
North Park: Alexander’s; Il Postino
Pacific Beach: Enoteca Adriano
Point Loma: The Venetian
Rancho Santa Fe: Nick & G’s
South Park: Buona Forchetta
Sorrento Mesa: Cucina Basilico
Tierrasanta: Andiamo Ristorante
Vista: Ciao Ristorante Italiano; Mama ‘n Papa’s Pizza Grotto
Eating and Drinking San Diego Poll
We asked members of the popular Facebook group Eating and Drinking San Diego to vote for their favorite Italian restaurants in San Diego. The top vote-getters: Buona Forchetta (South Park), 22; Solare (Liberty Station), Piacere Mio (South Park) and Monello (Little Italy), tied with 16; Bencotto (Little Italy), 11; Lido’s (Lemon Grove), 8. Each tied with seven votes: The Godfather (Kearny Mesa); Civico 1845 (Little Italy); Antica Trattoria (La Mesa); Arrivederci (Hillcrest); Biga (downtown San Diego).
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