By Robin Kleven Dishon
location: 1609 India Street, Little Italy
At 7:15 on a Saturday night, this joint is already jumping. Every table in the dining room is taken, and the bar is standing room only. Servers weave and backtrack through the human tangle, while out front, a growing throng overflows the patio and snakes into the darkness.
On the street, cars crawl past, cruising for ever-more-elusive parking spots. Inside, the Babel of voices rises and falls, then rises again like an incoming tide. All in all, sure signs of a happening spot. Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp? Prospect Street in La Jolla?
Guess again. It’s India Street in Little Italy, where the bambino drawing all the attention is named Buon Appetito.
The new arrival is a sibling of popular restaurants Trattoria i Trulli in Encinitas and Arrivederci in Hillcrest; Buon Appetito is the pick of the litter. Situated on a once-dormant stretch of India now sprouting condo projects and home-furnishing shops, it’s open for lunch as well as dinner. Given the booming locale and the public’s insatiable desire for Italianate cuisine, Buon Appetito looks destined for buona fortuna.
While the restaurant interior is relatively small—it seats about 50—the dining options are enormous. The menu boasts more than a dozen pastas, 10 different meat and seafood entrées and an equal number of appetizers. There’s no pizza in this parlor, a nice switch that also includes the presence of grilled quail and braised rabbit. Add a full page of specials, moderate pricing, and presto! That’s amore.
Critically speaking, there are numerous reasons to salute Buon Appetito, starting with some first-rate appetizers. Most are under $10; all are generous enough to serve two or three. The polenta ($7.95) is one of the city’s best, with three grilled triangles floated on a gorgonzola–and–wild mushroom sauce that’s wicked rich indeed. Rich, too, are the chicken livers, seared to seal their creamy foie gras interiors and generously heaped on a peppery arugula salad ($6.95).
And while everybody’s doing a caprese salad these days, the Buon Appetito version is memorable for squeaky-fresh mozzarella and tomatoes with actual flavor jazzed up with red onions ($7.95). Even the house-baked fresh bread is exceptional, especially dipped in accompanying garlic-tomato salsa.
Skip the Caesar salad ($5.95); the dressing lacks snap, and the kitchen’s stingy with the Parmesan flakes. Pass on the grilled portabella ($7.95), too, a dull slab that tastes only of the breadcrumbs on top.
The Sheer Variety of main dishes makes ordering a joy, especially if your group includes carb-eaters, carb-shunners, vegetarians and carnivores. Some of the lower-priced dishes deliver the most satisfaction, to wit: the sautéed chicken breast paired with fontina cheese and a sumptuous mustard sauce ($14.95) and the chicken lasagna laced with carrots, zucchini and onions and loaded with shredded white meat ($12.95). Simple preparations of pasta with ultra-fresh tomato sauce ($10.95) or basil and fresh mozzarella ($9.95) also make great bargain dining.
Buon Appetito easily passed the risotto test by sending out a platter of perfectly plumped rice fortified with scallops and topped with mussels and clams ($14.95). They make a knock-out gnocchi too, matching those tiny dumplings with chopped tomato, grilled eggplant and a blanket of mozzarella.
Ossobuco ($23.95) featured a burly veal shank oozing tasty marrow and topped off with vegetable mirepoix—excellent, save for the watery saffron risotto beneath. But the rack of lamb ($23.95) had an exterior so overcharred we ended up calling it wreck of lamb.
The restaurant makes all its own desserts, and they’re worth lingering over. The classic torte kissed with lemon and the jumbo tiramisu soaked in espresso were both superb ($5.25 apiece).
We’ve dubbed the terrific wine list “Around the World in 80 Labels.” Italian wines predominate, as they should, but the list also features lesser-known vineyards and varietals from around the globe, with a number of selections by the glass. From Italy, both the Verdicchio and the Vermentino make a nice change for Chardonnay habitués, with their clean, palate-cleansing character. The red side includes a hearty, value-priced Malbec from Argentina ($19), along with five different Chiantis priced from $20 to $75 a bottle (alas, no vintages included). In general, prices are gentle, with plenty of bottles under $30. Bravo!
The owners made another smart move in their choice of staffers, selected for their experience from the other restaurants in the family. Well-informed, good-humored and patient, these servers never try to hustle you out the door.
With its warm, pumpkin-colored walls, sturdy wooden tables and earth-toned floors, the restaurant has an easy-going style that’s hip, not haughty. It manages to replicate the feel of a bustling Tuscan trattoria, right down to the noise level. Tables in the open dining room are closely spaced, making this a place that’s more about conviviality and rubbing elbows than privacy or romance. It’s comfortable, though, and as the evening grows later the crowds tend to get younger and dressier.
The bar counter seats only four, but standing room seems to expand as each new guest squeezes in. Out front, the sidewalk patio offers tables primarily for dining; when it’s not crowded, it’s a fine place to sip a drink and await your place inside.
Parking is becoming a challenge, a sure sign of “progress” in our town. A couple of pay lots are within blocks of the restaurant, or you might luck into a spot along the curb. Remember to watch for all the one-way streets in this historic part of town.
And enjoy working your way through the menu at Buon Appetito. We certain-ly are.Buon Appetito serves lunch and dinner daily at 1609 India Street, Little Italy; 619-238-9880