Officine Buona Forchetta Lives and Stalls by Simplicity at Liberty Station
Good, simple dishes are prepared without fuss, which is both the restaurant's strength and its weakness.
2865 Sims Road,
Liberty Station is alive. Finally. Sometimes promise takes a while to manifest. The concept—to turn a 361-acre 1920s naval base into a mixed-use retail center and aortic gathering place for San Diegans—was greeted with a shrug and a sigh when it opened in 2007. Sure, the wide-open grassy promenades were perfect for kids’ birthdays and jumpy houses. But the first tenants had zero sex appeal. Trader Joe’s. Starbucks. Panera. Cold Stone Creamery. La Salsa. Chains galore.
Here was this landmark exploding with 60 years of San Diego life and history (my father, a naval dentist, was stationed here), a unique property with the potential to be something our city and only our city had. Like Pike Place in Seattle or the Ferry Building in San Francisco, but bigger, with more open air and our expensively perfect weather. And then, disappointment. The management company filled it with national chains you could find in 4,395 other American cities. It was like sending Tilda Swinton or Lupita Nyong’o—one-of-a-kind beauties—onto the catwalk in golf shirts and cargo shorts. Or like turning Balboa Theatre into a Best Buy.
Nothing against national chains. God bless them for building something that employs millions of people. And, for big commercial development projects like Liberty Station, you need the cash flow and the stability of “anchor tenants” like those biggies. To be honest, many San Diego vendors can’t afford the rent at Liberty Station; but Liberty Station can’t afford not to have them be a part of it.
A balance needed to prevail. And now, with a change of heart and business model, Liberty Station has done it. There’s Stone Brewing, Solare, Soda & Swine, Fireside by The Patio, Corvette Diner, Liberty Public Market (filled with 32 local food and drink vendors), Breakfast Republic, and the newest arrival, Officine Buona Forchetta.
Buona Forchetta knows how to make a pizza; their flagship in South Park is hailed as the best in San Diego. Owner Matteo Cattaneo’s family owns one of Italy’s most successful olive oil companies, and each harvest they ship him barrels of the best. That doesn’t hurt. He also hired a world pizza champion to teach his staff the art of Neapolitan pie. He has one of the best brick ovens in the world. His chef is Italian and very capable, and his staff is ultra Italian, greeting guests with that dead-sexy yet friendly accent and familiarity.
For Officine, Cattaneo partnered with Mario Cassineri, chef-owner of downtown’s standout Italian restaurant, BiCE. Liberty Station has some less-than-desirable layouts (see the cramped space for Breakfast Republic), but Officine’s is excellent—a massive covered front patio; a smaller indoor space with an open kitchen, bar, and an actual Fiat convertible that’s been turned into a two-top (you dine in the back seat); and a back patio with a courtyard and swing set where kids can work out their restless everything syndromes.
There are white tiles with gold maps of Italy, and a huge mural of Fiat’s founder, Giovanni Agnelli. The pizza domes are front and center in the open kitchen. Red lockbox charging stations hang on the wall near the bathrooms, looking like tiny red British phone booths. The only problem with the design of the place is the restrooms—for a popular, 200-seat restaurant, having only single-person bathrooms is almost inhumane.
During lunchtime, you’ll see families and local business types on the patio sipping orange-hued Italian spritzers (Aperol, Prosecco), a bitter, refreshing aperitif. A huge chalkboard of specials is usually the best place to find your order, although some standards from the original Buona Forchetta—pizza in a jar, pastas, and the excellent “Sergio” pizza—remain.
Our first lunch sets the tone for our experience over two visits: good, simple dishes, prepared without fuss—which is both their strength (don’t bury good ingredients) and their weakness (some flavors need to be amplified). Their meatballs are excellent, a mix of beef and pork, juicy with a simple marinara Parm. Their street-style lamb skewer, however, desperately needs a sauce. Served in a clay pot, it’s simply grilled lamb on a stick. If given an Italian herb sauce, they’d be perfect. Twice we order the burrata special—a tuft of the magically creamy Parmesan and mozzarella cheese in a shallow pool of house-made sauces. But neither time does it come with bread. On its own, it’s a tad rich, if very flavorful and appropriately garlicky.
The seafood preparations shine. The octopus carpaccio—shaved into thin ribbons, placed over arugula, tomatoes, Gaeta olives, olive oil, lemon, and shards of Parmesan—is light, lemony, and has just enough salt from the cheese. We also have a house-cured salmon over arugula from the specials board, fresh with just enough funkiness from the cure.
Their arancini (fried balls of risotto with saffron in a Bolognese sauce) wins the eternal struggle of the dish, which is keeping the rice from being overcooked when it goes into the fryer. The artichoke hearts, minimally marinated and served with herbs and olive oil, will neither knock your socks off nor disappoint.
For dinner, try the pork chop special if they have it, cooked pink (as a pork chop should be), cut with a pocket and stuffed with cheese and speck. The sauce—brandy, demiglace, butter, and a touch of cream—is drinkable. I always try the chicken, and it’s a bit lacking here. There are two ways to do it: one is to roast it and make sure the skin is crackling and the herbs and spices are intense. The second is to build a rich sauce to pump up the mild protein. Forchetta opts for a marsala sauce, which is a touch thin and needs to be reduced to amplify the flavor, although the chicken is tender, juicy, beyond reproach. The lobster fettuccine is nice, but it, too, is a bit light on seasoning in the seafood-spiked marinara sauce. It needs more basil, more cognac, more something.
We mostly steer away from the pizza, because I know how well Forchetta has honed that skill set. So it’s surprising that the one we tried—“The Marcello,” a pie with multilayered crusts, served with grissini wrapped with prosciutto—is a bit dry and needs more sauce. I chalk it up to an anomaly, akin to In-N-Out forgetting the sauce on an animal-style burger; 9.9 times out of 10, the pizza will be great here.
The biggest surprise is how excellent our desserts are. First and foremost, the panna cotta (perfectly shuddering in a creamy texture, topped with berry coulis), and the tiramisu, which is almost a light pot de crème with ladyfingers, into which they pour espresso tableside. In a time when pastry chefs are the unicorn of the industry, hired only by big hotels, sweets at most restaurants have suffered greatly. But Officine’s are hits across the board.
So simplicity, for the time being, is both a selling point and a detraction for Officine. With trademark Italian charm from the servers, the bounty of patio space to soak up the San Diego sun and let the kids roam free, and two top Italian food minds in Cassineri and Cattaneo, the second installment of Buona Forchetta will be just fine.