How good was San Diego’s Italian food in 2019? Our Top 10 restaurant list finally has 10 on it!

Il Dandy's Ravioli di Pasta Kina, with beef ragù, caciocavallo foam and cured egg yolk, is Italian perfection on a plate.
(Sam Wells photo)

There used to be only seven on our Top 10 list, but with the openings of standout Italian eateries Cesarina, Il Dandy/Arama and Siamo Napoli, the county is officially delizioso now

If 2019 was a banner year for dining in San Diego, it will also go down as the turning point for truly high-quality Italian food, thanks to three new exciting, first-rate eateries, Cesarina, Siamo Napoli and Il Dandy, and its fine dining restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Arama.

The number three is key because on Oct. 18, 2018, the Union-Tribune published “For my list of Top 10 San Diego Italian restaurants, I could only find 7.” It was a controversial piece that bemoaned the acceptance of mediocre or overwrought Italian food in this town and the lack of simple, yet sophisticated, fare that you’d find in any major city in America.

There is no weak link on Cesarina's menu, including this seasonal dish of gnocchi with porcini mushrooms, gamberi and summer black truffles.
(James Tran photo)

So, I couldn’t have planned 2019’s developments any better: With the arrival of Cesarina, Siamo Napoli and Il Dandy, my list of Top 10 San Diego Italian restaurants has finally filled out to 10.

Yes, I tried other recently opened Italian restaurants as well as places suggested by readers after my story appeared. None merited inclusion alongside my original Top 7: Antica Trattoria in La Mesa, Biga in downtown San Diego, Cucina Urbana in Bankers Hill, Isola Pizza Bar in La Jolla, Mona Lisa in Little Italy, Monzù Fresh Pasta in the East Village and Vivace in Carlsbad. (I also worked my way back through most of that list in 2019 to reconfirm some of their inclusion-worthiness. My choices stand.)

Candor's lamb pappardelle was one of the more delicious bowls of pasta I had all year.
Candor’s lamb pappardelle was one of the more delicious bowls of pasta I had all year.
(Lucianna McIntosh photo)

Though I couldn’t expand the list to 15, or even 11, there are some new places that deserve honorable mention. Candor by Giuseppe, in La Jolla, features a number of chef Giuseppe Ciuffa’s delicious Italian dishes on its menu (a recent meal included exceptionally tasty lamb pappardelle and butternut squash arancini), but it’s not a full-on Italian restaurant. Semola, a stall in the Little Italy Food Hall from the owners of Ambrogio15, is the perfect place to get a well-executed bowl of quick pasta, but it offers more of a treat than a meal. And Ciccia Osteria, in Barrio Logan, is helmed by the former Bice’s dream team of Francesca Penoncelli and Mario Cassineri. Penoncelli’s cooking is sublime, but the fast-casual business model is the antithesis of Italian restaurant hospitality. (Here’s what I wrote about Candor, Semola and Ciccia.)

Let us, then, celebrate the debuts of Cesarina, Siamo Napoli and Il Dandy/Arama — all three charming, all three opened by native Italians passionate about their culinary culture, all three unquestionably authentic and most importantly, all three utterly delicious.

Here’s a quick glance at why they deserve to be on the list of Top 10 San Diego Italian Restaurants.

Modern Calabria on a plate: Il Dandy's carpaccio of spot prawns with Tropea red onion sorbetto and citrus slices.
(Sam Wells photo)

Il Dandy/Arama

Who: A joint project from Civico 1845’s brothers Dario and Pietro Gallo and fellow Calabrians — and Michelin-starred —father-and-son chefs Antonio and Luca Abbruzzino.

What: Il Dandy is a playful yet sophisticated homage to contemporary Calabrian cuisine, with such boundary-pushing dishes as spot prawn carpaccio with Tropea red onion sorbet and citrus supremes. Excellent pastas, pizzas, homemade bread, a wide variety of vegan dishes, Italian wine and spirits, stellar service and stylish décor make for a delightful night out. Arama, an ultra-intimate, single-table restaurant-within-a-restaurant, highlights the Abbruzzinos’ cooking at its audaciously modern best. The ever-evolving, multi-course, Michelin-inspired tasting menu obliterates any preconception of what Italian food can or should be. (My Il Dandy review; my Arama review.)

2550 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill. Appetizers and entrées $14-$47; Arama: $180-$250 per person based on party size (minimum two, maximum six). (619) 310-5669.

Arama's single table dining room, off the kitchen, is just for your party. The intimate setting and the superlative culinary experience make it one of the most unique restaurants in San Diego.
Arama’s single table dining room, off the kitchen, is just for your party. The intimate setting and the superlative culinary experience make it one of the most unique restaurants in San Diego.
(Courtesy photo)
Cesarina owners Giuseppe Capasso, Niccolò Angius and Giuseppe Scognamiglio are bringing a youthful energy to San Diego's emerging Italian food scene.
(Courtesy photo)


Who: A spirited group of young Italians made up of owners Niccolò Angius from Rome, and cousins Giuseppe Scognamiglio and Giuseppe Capasso from Naples, chef Patrick Money from Mantua and pastry chef, and Angius’ wife, Cesarina Mezzoni.

What: Cesarina is a casual, light-filled bright spot on the Italian restaurant landscape. In the most fundamental of ways, it tastes like Italy, from the essential marinara sauce to the perfectly cooked pastas to the magical tiramisù prepared tableside. The patio is popular, but I’m drawn to the demonstration pasta-making space, turning out artisan-crafted tubes, strands, ribbons, gnocchi, lasagna noodles and more. How should they be sauced? The build-your-own pasta portion of menu is a nod to younger diners seeking an experience and Americans who want it their way. I say trust these Italians. (My review.)

4161 Voltaire St., Point Loma. Appetizers and entrées $7.95-$35.95. (619) 226-6222.

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

Siamo Napoli

Who: Flavio Piromallo, a native of Naples.

What: The first solo restaurant from the unofficial mayor of Little Italy’s India Street has taken everything he’s learned from a decade of working at Buon Appetito, Sogno di Vino and Civico 1845 to create a delightfully rustic trattoria that excels at everything from wood-fired pizza to fresh pastas, seafood salad to heavenly ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms. The well-priced Italian wine list is refreshing. And calling all New Yorkers, the fried zeppole taste straight from your neighborhood street festa. (My review.)

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

After more than a decade working at various Little Italy restaurants, Siamo Napoli is Flavio Piromallo's first solo restaurant venture — and it's a hit.
(Krissel Rivas/Arlene Ibarra photo)