Two Italians and Southern comfort: 3 restaurants to try in San Diego


Where are we eating these days? At a new Italian restaurant at Fashion Valley, a Gaslamp eatery that has turned toward Italy and a downtown spot for Southern comfort food.

Provisional Kitchen, Cafe & Mercantile

We love when a restaurant comes into its own. Provisional, the all-day eatery at The Pendry hotel in downtown San Diego, has had a bit of an identity crisis since it opened in February of 2017.

Not quite as trendy as The Pendry’s signature restaurant LionFish, Provisional seemed to only click at lunch with downtown office workers, hotel guests and convention visitors. But at dinner, the smaller crowds made its airy, chic, two-story space seem that much bigger. That’s a shame, because the ingredient-driven food has always been good. Now, however, with a pivot toward Italian food, it’s pretty great.

In the capable hands of chef de cuisine Brandon Sloan, who has cooked under such San Diego kitchen luminaries as Jon Bautista and Trey Foshee, Provisional has revamped its dinner menu to include charcuterie, wood-fired pizzas, pasta and an all-Italian lineup of desserts.

In two recent visits, I was simply wowed by a number of dishes: fragrant, creamy and decadent black truffle risotto; sumptuous and sweet squash blossom pizza with garlic confit and honey ricotta; pristine and delicate whole-roasted branzino; bucatini Bolognese with sensational, savory homemade pork sausage; tender, perfectly cooked pistachio-crusted veal Milanese; and mussels in a house-made nduja, fennel, white wine and Fresno chile broth that you’d drink from the bowl if it weren’t embarrassing.

The not-too-sweet desserts are uniformly delicious, even if I’m a little thrown by the texture of the butterscotch pudding/rice pudding. The silky, light and bright lemon panna cotta is the only panna cotta I’ve ever liked (no jiggling!) and the hot-from-the-oven, eat-with-a-spoon torta di cioccolato in a bowl is as good as my all-time chocolate fondant cake from République in L.A.

On Sundays only Provisional serves tableside cacio e pepe, alternating each week with that amazing truffle risotto, as well as a cannoli flight (I’m partial to the pistachio and hazelnut).

Provisional isn’t perfect — both the veal meatballs and the spicy nduja (spreadable sausage) on the charcuterie board were way too salty. The crispy sunchokes could use a little less crisp and the roasted cauliflower could use a little more sage breadcrumbs and lemon. I also wish the wine list was more creative and less expensive, traits it shares with its sister restaurant LionFish.

Those are quibbles, though. This reimagined restaurant is better than you can imagine. Head over to the adorable Moët & Chandon vending machine in the corner to grab a mini bottle; it’s worthy of a celebration.

425 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp. (619) 738-7300.

Suckerfree Southern Plate & Bar

San Diego has become a hotbed for smoky, soul-satisfying barbecue with more brisket, pulled pork and rib joints than you can shake a mesquite log at.

But Southern food? That’s as rare as Cali-style catfish. Which makes Suckerfree Southern Plate & Bar such a welcome find. The raucous Gaslamp Quarter might be the last place you’d expect to find Southern comfort food sweetened with Southern charm, but that’s exactly what Suckerfree delivers.

With a menu that includes crispy hushpuppies, shrimp ’n grits, po’ boy sandwiches, gumbo, collard greens, fried green tomatoes, Creole crab cakes and fried chicken gizzards, Suckerfree feels like a travelogue of the American South.

On my multiple visits there since it opened last February, my two favorite dishes have been the most indulgent: the three mini cast iron pan mac ’n’ cheese flight (smokehouse brisket, blackened shrimp and lobster and crab) and the 3 Lil’ Pigs sliders of pulled pork, sausage and slab bacon.

The plump, spicy shrimp on heavenly — and heavily cheesy — grits are a winner, though the quality of the fried chicken can vary between visits. The first time it was perfectly moist inside and the breading had a nicely seasoned flavor. The last time I ordered it, it tasted like the oil it was fried in needed to be changed. At least the “OG Waffle” it came on top of was a pleasurable consolation. (It should be: Suckerfree’s sister restaurant is North Park’s StreetCar Merchants of Fried Chicken.)

Even if you’re too full to order dessert, and you likely will be, try to at least take a few spoonfuls of the luscious Nilla caramel crunch banana pudding. Trust me, you’ll want to bring the rest home.

The menu descriptions and décor (Mr. T!, “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” poster!) add cheeky fun and touches like Southern cream soda, sweet tea and Atlanta peach cobbler lend Suckerfree an authentic air.

You’d be a sucker not to try it.

751 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp. (619) 892-7744.

North Italia

With its über-upscale boutiques, Fashion Valley is command central for San Diego’s Ladies Who Lunch. Except with few places to actually have lunch. Or dinner.

Enter Fox Restaurant Concepts, the Phoenix-based group that opened Blanco Tacos + Tequila and North Italia at the mall last fall.

North Italia is the better of the two. Located in a newly built, stylish and contemporary 8,500 square-foot space adjacent to Bloomingdale’s — and across from True Food Kitchen, which was founded by Fox’s Sam Fox. With Westfield UTC significantly raising the bar for mall dining in San Diego, North Italia is a timely and needed addition to Fashion Valley. For years, the eating options have essentially been the handful of department store cafes, True Food, California Pizza Kitchen and the food court.

An open kitchen and crowds of shoppers help make North Italia a lively place to be and the cooking will tempt you to break your designer dress diet.

The pastas we tried — the house specialty tagliatelle Bolognese and radiatori with short rib — were just OK. But we enjoyed the smoky grilled artichoke with lemon aioli and devoured the decadent white truffle garlic bread with ethereal housemade ricotta like we hadn’t eaten in weeks.

The standout dish, however, was a perfectly roasted, juicy and fragrant rosemary chicken. It’s one of the better birds in town.

Creamy, classic tiramisu could lose the chalky chocolate pearls but the budino, topped with exceptionally gooey salted caramel, was as silky as a couture gown.

7055 Friars Road, Fashion Valley. (Also opening soon at Carmel Valley’s One Paseo.) (619) 343-2301.

Twitter: @sdeditgirl