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San Diego’s tasty Italian invasion marches on with three new spots

North Park’s new Siamo Napoli makes true Neapolitan pizza in its custom azure-tiled pizza oven.
North Park’s new Siamo Napoli makes true Neapolitan pizza in its custom azure-tiled pizza oven.
(Krissel Rivas/Arlene Ibarra)

North Park’s Siamo Napoli serves authentic Neapolitan pizza, pasta and more; the East Village has a new Italian marketplace, RoVino The Foodery; and Little Italy welcomes an express pasta stand, Semola

This has been a banner year — a green, white and red banner, to be exact — for Italian food in San Diego.

Seemingly every month has been marked by the opening of another impressive Italian eatery. The mini boom started earlier in the year with Cesarina in Point Loma, Ciccia Osteria in Barrio Logan, Il Dandy in Bankers Hill, and later Il Dandy’s single-table restaurant-within-a-restaurant Arama. More recently, San Diego saw the arrivals of Siamo Napoli in North Park, RoVino The Foodery in the East Village, Blade 1936 in Oceanside, and Semola in the Little Italy Food Hall.

That’s a lot of 00 flour being imported.

The restaurants show the diversity of Italian styles and regional cuisine. They are rustic and elevated, traditional and modern, fast-casual and rooted in the slow-food movement. Their owners hail from Rome, Naples, Calabria, Sicily, Florence and Milan. And all are helping to make San Diego America’s next great destination for Italian cuisine.

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Here’s a look at three new places to try, all of them with connections to other successful San Diego Italian restaurants.

Siamo Napoli gives Naples’ most famous native daughter, Sophia Loren, her due.
Siamo Napoli gives Naples’ most famous native daughter, Sophia Loren, her due.
(Krissel Rivas/Arlene Ibarra)

Siamo Napoli

If you’ve spent any time in Little Italy over the past decade, you’ve probably come into contact with Flavio Piromallo.

The engaging, high-energy native of Naples has been a fixture along India Street, working alongside Antonino Mastellone at Buon Appetito and Sogno di Vino, as well as brothers Pietro and Dario Gallo at Civico 1845 (and Il Dandy/Arama).

Now, Piromallo has ventured out on his own with his first restaurant, Siamo Napoli, taking over the space that housed Mastellone’s Il Postino, on 30th Street in North Park.

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Siamo Napoli is Flavio Piromallo’s first solo restaurant venture.
Siamo Napoli is Flavio Piromallo’s first solo restaurant venture.
(Krissel Rivas/Arlene Ibarra)

Open about six weeks, the revamped restaurant has an airy, contemporary feel punctuated by bursts of blue tiles on the bar and pizza oven that are as vibrant as the Bay of Naples. And the Neapolitan goddess herself, Sophia Loren, is honored with a larger-than-life photo that captures the actress’s heart-stopping beauty and raw sensuality.

It all sets the scene for an enchanting culinary trip to Naples. Four of us recently oohed and aahed through three courses, marveling at the freshness of the ricotta filling the IPA tempura fried squash blossoms — a crafty nod to San Diego — as well as the briny brightness of the seafood salad of octopus, calamari and shrimp. We loved all three of our perfectly executed pastas: eggplant-stuffed ravioli, fluffy-light gnocchi in textbook Italian marinara, and peppy capunti shells with house-made fennel sausage, rapini and chili.

Siamo Napoli offers 10 varieties of that most important export: pizza Napolitana. We tried the piping hot Burrata e Carciofi (artichoke) with cherry tomato and basil, and we were again awed at the purity and freshness of the cheese. The pizza crust, while not as thin as two of us would have preferred, is as tasty as any in town.

Pizza Napolitana and seafood salad are two standouts at North Park’s new Siamo Napoli.
Pizza Napolitana and seafood salad are two standouts at North Park’s new Siamo Napoli.
(Krissel Rivas/Arlene Ibarra)

The meal’s only disappointment was the meatballs, which were somewhat dry, probably due to the ratio of meat to breadcrumbs being off. Dialing up on the meat would be a quick fix.

For dessert, yeasty, fried zeppole took my sister and me back to the annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel feast in the Bronx, where we’d eat them hot, right out of a grease-stained brown paper bag, on the street. And Siamo Napoli’s delicate amaretto semifreddo had a lovely, creamy consistency that is too often missing from this semi-frozen, slice-able mousse.

The almost exclusively Italian wine list, covering 13 regions from the Alps to Sicily, is a delight to explore and very reasonably priced.

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I can’t wait to go back to Siamo Napoli, one of the best new Italian restaurants to open in this plentiful year.

3959 30th St., North Park. (619) 310-6981. siamonapolisd.com

Siamo Napoli took over the old Il Postino space in North Park.
Siamo Napoli took over the old Il Postino space in North Park.
(Krissel Rivas/Arlene Ibarra)
RoVino The Foodery’s hearty short rib pasta.
RoVino The Foodery’s hearty short rib pasta.
(Courtesy photo)

RoVino The Foodery

Italian marketplaces are scarce in San Diego, so a big, hearty benvenuti! to RoVino The Foodery, in the East Village. The restaurant, wine bar, deli, bakeshop, grab-and-go counter and gourmet grocery store is a welcome addition to a neighborhood that still tends to cater more to tourists and partiers than residents.

Co-owners Tom Tarantino, Antonia Buono and Vicenzo Bruno are gracious hosts and have staffed their shop and restaurant with equally helpful and friendly servers.

Work up an appetite by combing the aisles of olive oils, fresh pastas, sauces, meats, cheeses, prepared foods and sweets, and then snag a table in the lovely dining room.

Fresh pasta, sauce, cheese and cannoli cream (in a piping bag!) are all available from RoVino The Foodery. Tip: Buy your cannoli shells from the bakery area; refrigerated ones could be soggy.
Fresh pasta, sauce, cheese and cannoli cream (in a piping bag!) are all available from RoVino The Foodery. Tip: Buy your cannoli shells from the bakery area; refrigerated ones could be soggy.
(Michele Parente)

Three of us enjoyed crispy Brussels sprouts with crackling prosciutto, glazed walnuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano and the balsamic-like saba sauce. Sirloin meatballs were moist and flavorful and so perfectly sauced in marinara that you’d be smart to lap up with some crusty Italian bread. The pizza bianca comes dotted with fresh ricotta, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes — an ingredient that’s worthy of a comeback.

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The pasta service is customized; you pick your shape and your sauce. We loved the kick that lemon zest gave to the pesto sauce on our bucatini. Such a small touch can give a dish a big inventive twist. The pasta was somewhat overcooked, however, and there was too much pesto for my taste. But we found perfection with the tagliatelle topped by a hearty shredded, braised short rib tomato sauce that was as good as any nonna would make.

Order a bottle off the 100 percent Italian wine list and be prepared to be shocked by the price. Because of The Foodery’s retail license, the wine list is ridiculously affordable. A $15 corkage fee will be added, but when the bottle is just $9, $12, $14 and up, that’s something to toast.

Skip the so-so desserts and instead opt to buy a pastry bag already filled with cannoli cream. Pick up some homemade shells — but not the ones in the refrigerator case, because they’ll be soggy! — and have a cannoli-filling party at home.

The Foodery is a sister concept to RoVino Rotisserie + Wine, a 3-year-old Italian restaurant that’s one of the standouts in Little Italy. Located on Kettner Boulevard, it’s a little off the beaten India Street path, and its out-of-sight, out-of-mind status is probably what led me to inexcusably leave it off my 2018 list of Italian restaurants to try if you’re in the neighborhood.

I’m happy to say now that if you’re in the East Village, try RoVino The Foodery.

969 Market St, East Village. (619) 310-6421. rovinothefoodery.com

RoVino The Foodery’s charming dining room.
RoVino The Foodery’s charming dining room.
(Courtesy photo)
Semola’s light-as-air gnocchi with tomato sauce is a classic choice. The new express pasta stand is the latest Italian addition to the Little Italy Food Hall.
Semola’s light-as-air gnocchi with tomato sauce is a classic choice. The new express pasta stand is the latest Italian addition to the Little Italy Food Hall.
(Courtesy photo)

Semola

It’s happening.

When the Little Italy Food Hall opened in July, 2018, only one of its six stands served Italian fare, Ambrogio15, an offshoot of the amazing Milanese-style pizza place in Pacific Beach. Then, in March, Bobboi Natural Gelato replaced Single Fin Kitchen seafood shop.

The changes didn’t stop there. Mike DiNorscia, CEO of Grain & Grit Collective, a hospitality group that created and operates the $2.3 million food hall project, told the Union-Tribune that even with the neighborhood’s many Italian restaurants, food hall customer surveys showed people it wasn’t enough.

“We’ve heard that some people want more Italian. We were looking to add variety,” he told the Union-Tribune. “I can’t say this isn’t the last Italian restaurant we’ll put in there.”

Coy? Maybe. But he was telling the truth. At the end of September, the team behind Ambrogio15 -- Giacomo Pizzigoni, Luca Salvi and Andrea Burrone -- opened Semola, a top-quality, customized, express pasta stand, in the corner where Roast Meat & Sandwich shop was located. So now, half of the food hall’s vendors are Italian.

Semola, a play off of the durum wheat semolina used to make the artisan pasta, is fast-casual of the highest order, serving delicious, exceptionally al dente bowls of pasta for under $10. Choose from among seven shapes, six sauces and various olive oil and specialty cheese finishings.

Two of us shared three bowls (we didn’t finish them, leaving room for Bobboi) and devoured them at the food hall’s bar, pairing them with a glass of vino for an oh-so-dolce-vita afternoon. Landing a patio table in the Piazza della Famiglia would have also been Italianissimo.

We both named the fettuccine Alfredo (Parmesan cream sauce), with an added spritz of truffle oil, as our top pick. The owners might be from Milan, but they get that classic Roman dish just right. Our second choice was a toss up; I gave the edge to the pillowy gnocchi in sweet tomato marinara, while my friend favored the strozzapreti with sausage and wild mushrooms. Then my friend eyed the gnocchi again and started to waver. “You know, at any other restaurant, these would be the No. 1,” she proclaimed. In other words, Semola is turning out some of the best pasta in San Diego. Just in a compostable paper bowl.

550 West Date St., Little Italy. (619) 450-6839. semolapasta.com

Ciao, neighbor: Ambrogio15’s owners recently opened the pasta stand Semola right across from it at the Little Italy Food Hall.
Ciao, neighbor: Ambrogio15’s owners recently opened the pasta stand Semola right across from it at the Little Italy Food Hall.
(Michele Parente)


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