Former Il Dandy co-founders pin hopes on Civico brand and pinsa for relaunch
Brothers Dario an Pietro Gallo will open Civico by the Park in Bankers Hill on July 1
March was going to be a milestone month for Il Dandy, the Bankers Hill restaurant opened early last year by four chefs from Italy’s Calabria region.
Co-founder Dario Gallo said the 5,000-square-foot Italian restaurant, and its luxurious six-seat tasting-menu room, Arama, were just $1,000 away from breaking even in February. March would have put them over the top, he said, but then the coronavirus pandemic arrived and shuttered both restaurants for good.
Losses during the state’s mandatory two-month shutdown, new social distancing requirements, a reticence among many diners to eat out again, the loss of summer convention business and a likely recession this year made the sister eateries near Balboa Park no longer viable, he said.
So Gallo and his brother, Pietro, have decided to reinvent the space at Fifth Avenue and Laurel Street with a more proven concept. Five years ago this month, they opened the popular Civico 1845 restaurant in Little Italy. On July 1, the former Il Dandy/Arama space will reopen as Civico by the Park.
“Now we’re in a new world with a lot of challenges. In order to make financial sense we have to try to adapt,” Gallo said. “Me and my brother decided why don’t we just put on hold this beautiful project and use what we know has been successful and bring it into this location.”
Unlike Il Dandy and Arama, Civico by the Park will be a solo project for the Gallos. Their former business partners, Calabrian chefs Antonio and Luca Abbruzzino, moved back to Southern Italy in March as a result of the pandemic. They wanted to focus their energies on rescuing their Michelin-starred Ristorante Abbruzzino, a tasting-menu eatery that was replicated here in miniature as the $250-a-seat Arama.
The brothers Gallo are promising an approachable and authentic menu at their new restaurant, which will offer dishes priced from $8 to $29. Civico 1845, which reopened for dine-in service on June 4, made its mark as one of California’s first restaurants with an optional vegan Italian menu. Civico by the Park will be one of California’s only restaurants serving authentic pinsa Romana.
Pinsa is a lighter, crispier, more pillowy pizza crust that originated in ancient Rome, then disappeared when pizza became Italy’s street food of choice. Pinsa was reimagined five years ago by the DiMarco family of Rome. They developed a unique wheat-soy-rice flour mixture that has become the world standard for pinsa-making.
While Civico by the Park will be the only San Diego restaurant serving the DiMarco pinsa Romana, it won’t be the first to make pinsa. Roman-born chef Marco Maestoso brought pinsa to San Diego in 2018. His eponymous restaurant in Hillcrest closed last fall, but he is still selling take-and-bake pinsa crusts at several local markets.
Pinsa and Pietro Gallo’s own Calabrian-style pizzas, priced from $14 to $23, will be the centerpiece of the Civico by the Park menu, which will also feature popular dishes from Civico 1845 and Il Dandy. Because the Bankers Hill location has one of the largest restaurant kitchens in San Diego, Dario said it will serve as the production kitchen for both Civico locations, allowing the company to now make all of its pastas in-house.
Pietro’s thin and crispy pizza crust was a popular seller at Il Dandy, with a digestible, slow-fermenting crust that is 70 percent water. By comparison, his pinsa crust is 80 percent water, and requires special training to make. So, last week a DiMarco pinsa expert in North Carolina flew in to train Pietro and the kitchen team at Civico by the Park.
Valerie Gerdes of Tin Roof Pizza near Asheville, N.C., discovered pinsa while dining at a San Francisco restaurant a couple of years ago. The former pastry chef tried to replicate the airy crust herself but was unsuccessful. Then she found DiMarco flour online. Now she imports it by the pallet. She said there’s nothing like it in the world.
Gerdes said the rice flour absorbs water, making the dough more elastic and fermentable than other pizza doughs. The dough undergoes a 72-hour cold fermentation process, which she said gives it more flavor and a bubblier texture. Then it’s gently hand-stretched over a bed of rice flour and baked for 2-1/2 minutes at 600 degrees. Pinsas traditionally serve as the foundation for gourmet toppings like pistachio emulsion, Mortadella ham, truffles, seafood and more. Because of pinsa’s low gluten content, it’s easier to digest than pizza crust.
Gerdes said she respects the Gallo brothers for reinventing their restaurant and for not being afraid to try something new with pinsa.
“I admire their purity,” she said. “They’re putting their heart on a plate. It’s a moment of vulnerability.”
The Gallos said the large, airy, indoor/outdoor Bankers Hill space should work well with new social distancing measures, so they’re optimistic for the future. But they haven’t entirely given up the idea of collaborating with the Abbruzzinos again someday.
“My dream is always to go back to normality, get out of this crisis and then try again,” Dario said.
For information on Civico by the Park, visit facebook.com/civicobythepark.
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