San Diego lost two excellent Italian restaurants when Bice and Bottega Americano closed. Now their chefs have opened Ciccia Osteria in Barrio Logan and Candor in La Jolla — but do they fill that void?
San Diego couldn’t really afford two lose two excellent Italian restaurants within six months of each other.
But that’s what happened when Bice, in the Gaslamp, closed in August of 2017, followed by the shuttering of the East Village’s Bottega Italiano in February last year. A void was created in a county already lacking authentic Italian eateries.
Now, the chefs from both of those restaurants, all Italian natives, have opened new places — Bice’s Francesca Penoncelli and Mario Cassineri opened Ciccia Trattoria in Barrio Logan in June and Bottega Americano’s Giuseppe Ciuffa recently debuted Candor in La Jolla.
Do Ciccia and Candor help fill that void? I’ve tried each of them just once and the answer is yes and no. Here’s why.
What: A pasta-centric, homey, fast-casual spot with counter service only.
Where: 2233 Logan Ave., Barrio Logan. (619) 674-4069. cicciasandiego.com
The food: Francesca Penoncelli knows her pasta, and the four we tried, off the menu’s impressive list of 18, were perfectly on point: al dente, appropriately sauced and profoundly flavorful. Simple spaghetti pomodoro had just the right amount of ricotta and burrata to make it substantive but not heavy. The stuffed capelli with celery root, brown butter, pancetta, pine nuts and balsamic, were hearty and aromatic. Half moon shaped mezzaluna pockets of pear, with gorgonzola and walnut were luxurious and gnocchi al pesto transports you right to the Ligurian coast. The mushroom flan appetizer, with a pecorino crust, is a genius dish — mooth and creamy but not jiggly, earthy and tangy. We loved the seasonal veggies dressed in a vibrant currant-caper vinaigrette and any dessert Penoncelli makes, you should order. The only disappointment was the namesake ciccio, a thinly sliced sirloin skewer that was so dry it hard to pull off the stick. Once we did, we regretted working so hard to taste it.
The experience: Fast casual (aka order at the counter and get a number) is a growing culinary trend for two reasons: people aren’t clamoring much for Bice-style formality these days and restaurant owners — Cassineri included — like it as a way to hold down labor costs. Fewer employees, lower payroll expenses. OK, it’s a business. But we paid more than $50 per person and our food came out at different times (two people ordered together and then two people ordered together), our pasta was served before our appetizer, we had to get up (and pull out the credit card again) to order another veggie dish and we had to get up (and pull out the credit card again) to get another glass of wine. Even though the menu says to “feel free to ask the assistance of our servers” if you need something, there were only two servers for a full house. Fast casual may work for burgers or tacos, but it’s the antithesis of an Italian restaurant.
Void filler? Like the angel and devil in Ciccia’s floor tile illustration, eating there is delicious but eating there may leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Candor by Giuseppe
What: An airy, contemporary neighborhood eatery in the site of Giuseppe Ciuffa’s first restaurant, Come on In! Cafe.
Where: 1030 Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. (858) 246-7818. dinecandor.com
The food: With a wide-ranging menu of lunch, dinner and brunch choices, Ciuffa hits all the bases that he’s covered for years with his thriving Giuseppe Restaurants & Fine Catering business. Using ingredients sourced from the nearby La Jolla farmers market, Ciuffa has created a repertoire of seasonal salads, veggie sides, pastas, seafood, meats and creative appetizers. Start with the decadent Maine lobster grilled cheese, with melted Midnight Moon goat cheese (why has no one thought of this before?), Vermont cheddar, sweet rhubarb jam, caramelized spring onion and basil aioli. It’s so satisfyingly superb, you’ll wonder what else could top it. Well, maybe the tagliatelle with farm-fresh squash, cauliflower, corn, asparagus, pea tendrils green garlic pesto and Parmigiano; it’s simply summer in a bowl. Or maybe the fisherman’s stew, loaded with shrimp, salmon, mussels, clams and lobster in a beautifully rendered, perfumed saffron tomato broth that’s at once soulful and light. Who knew Ciuffa was a dessert maven? His dark Valhrona chocolate pot de crème is hands down the best high-end chocolate pudding in San Diego. And Giuseppe’s Famous Carrot Cake is aptly named: light, not-too-sweet and super moist, he could sell that and nothing else. Less successful were the two vegetable dishes we ordered. Both the mushroom medley and the artichoke bottoms with fennel lacked seasoning, leaving them bland.
The experience: Ciuffa must have catered every affair in La Jolla. He was greeted with hugs, handshakes and even a few air kisses, by nearly everyone in the packed dining room. People seemed to be genuinely having fun the Saturday night we were there. And why not? The food is terrific, the setting is pretty, the well-priced, Italian-centric wine list is a joy and the service is charming.
Void filler? Yes and sort of no. Yes, Ciuffa’s craveable cooking is always welcome. But no, Candor’s three pasta dishes are not enough for someone who wants him to open a 100 percent Italian restaurant. Yes, I’m being selfish.