Apertivo


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IN A PROMOTION-DRIVEN WORLD filled with press releases, e-mail blasts and media parties, good old word of mouth still sells restaurants. Take the night we were chatting with a couple of strangers at 3rd Corner in Ocean Beach. Perusing the stacks of wine for sale, debating the merits of New Zealand Pinot Noir versus Châteauneuf-du-Pape to accompany dinner, we started talking local restaurants.

There’s this great little place in North Park, they declared. It’s noisy but fun. And cheap, with some great food. It’s like a Spanish tapas bar, only with Italian food and bigger servings. And did we mention it’s a wine bar too?

Thank you, fellow foodies. You were absolutely right about Apertivo. Open for dinner only, Apertivo Italian Tapas & Wine Bar is a treat for all who love to graze, sample, nibble, dabble and taste.

The lengthy menu (and Italy-centric wine list) is designed with sampling in mind. At conventional Italian eateries, you’re forced to choose between the Caesar salad and the antipasto . . . the chicken marsala or the pollo piccata . . . the linguini with pesto or alfredo or marinara. Here, you simply order them all. These appetizer-size portions are just right for sharing with companions, or bringing home as leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

Prices will leave holiday-weary wallets intact. Most pastas, salads and vegetables cost from $3 to $5; $7 buys a chicken creation or a hearty lamb shank. Wines by the glass are similarly priced.

It’s a smart strategy devised by chef/ owner Ken Cassinelli and his wife, Janie Losli: Offer simple, straightforward home cooking with an emphasis on value and flavor. Let your guests decide how hungry they are. Encourage them to experiment with different wines at low prices. Presto! Watch lines form outside the door.

Cassinelli prides himself on coaxing maximum flavor from a minimum of ingredients. Take his Caesar salad ($4), topped with a sure-handed whisking of oil, eggs and anchovy fillets. It’s subtle, yet more complex than many a version costing three times as much.

Unfussy vegetable dishes such as roasted red peppers, sherry-sautéed mushrooms or fresh haricots verts (French beans sizzled in garlic) taste roadsidestand fresh. In less experienced hands, eggplant can be bitter. Here, the rollatinis ($4) fashioned from fresh slices of the temperamental veggie, paired with tangy goat cheese and shredded Swiss chard, then baked with marinara, are sweet. Chef Ken, once a practicing vegetarian, offers a considerable variety of meat-free selections and can create vegan-friendly versions upon request.

Apertivo’s chicken dishes ($7 apiece) are up to scratch as well. Prepared with bite-sized, boneless strips, the meat is consistently tender, the sauces perky and bold. We’re partial to the chicken diablo flecked with chilies and the lovably boozy Marsala. Pair one or the other with a side veggie or garlic bread for a complete $10 meal.

Nightly specials are posted on the blackboard out front. One night’s lamb ossobuco ($7), slow roasted with onions, oregano, red wine and garlic, was the definition of rustic charm.

Pastas (served as a mix ’n’ match menu of sauces and pasta shapes, $4 to $7) can be unpredictable. Our fettucine alfredo epitomized the dual pleasures of Romano cheese and cream, and the linguini affumicato (smoked mozzarella, caramelized onion and prosciutto) was downright dreamy. But the carbonara was dry, lacking that luxurious texture this blend of eggs, Parmesan and pancetta should provide.

Desserts didn’t disappoint. Made with a minimum of sugar, unlike so many American versions, Apertivo’s finales appeal to grown-up palates and are wellsuited to pairing with dessert wines. Bread pudding (topped with cream and port sauce), chocolate mousse pie and pound cake drizzled with raspberries and framboise all warrant your time and the $4 price tag.

Prices on the wine list are as refreshing as a glass of Falanghina. Sample this dry, food-friendly white from Southern Italy for $5.75, or enjoy a fruity, floral Vermentino for just $4. Fritz’s California fruit-bomb Chardonnay is $5.75, while an easy-drinking Italian rosé goes for $4.25. On the red side, user-friendly Italian Barbera, Shiraz and Chianti all go for under $4 a glass.

Feeling experimental? Assemble your own flights of fancy by ordering halfglasses of the wines of your choice. Or check the board behind the bar for the night’s recommended tasting. Of course, wines by the bottle are offered as well.

For all its assets, Apertivo rates a few caveats. The dimly lit, shoebox-shape dining room, bare-walled save for European ad posters, can be cacaphonous. Conversations quickly drown out the background music, and the tables, although well-spaced, are anything but private. A couple of tables on the sidewalk offer a bit more peace.

The service is brisk and affable, though, and the place feels like home. Couples and singles of all ages and backgrounds; families with kids; locals and visitors drawn by the nearby theater and Ray Street galleries. All mingle, nibble and sip contentedly at Apertivo.

The owners have no current plans to open other locations. But we’d love to see an Apertivo in every zip code. We’ll even do the word of mouth.

Open Tuesday-Sunday from 5 p.m. at 3926 30th Street, North Park; 619-297- 7799; apertivo.com.

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