The Three Faces of Busalacchi
By David Nelson
After the last scrap of floor has been mopped, after the weary dishwasher has flipped off the lights, pulled the key from the lock at India Street's Cafe Zucchero and turned his steps homeward, a touch of culinary theater remains. In dazzling display cases, a masked ball for cakes takes place.
Preening on the glass shelves are tiny cassatini, banded in pale green almond-paste stripes and capped with cherries. Delicate cannoli promenade in front of gaudy cream horns, chocolate logs and plump, cream-filled puffs. Multicolored slices of mille foglie and hand-painted marzipan fruits strut their stuff. The impresario of this magical pastry party is restaurateur Joe Busalacchi, who has created a display of sweets (and savory dishes as well) reminiscent of those common in his native Sicily.
On the patio at Cafe Zucchero, owner/chef Joe Busalacchi sips a glass of wine at a table of his favorite flavors.
Until recently, the Cafe Zucchero (Sugar Cafe) premises-adjacent to Busalacchi's Trattoria Fantastica-housed Assenti Pasta, which has moved a few blocks north on India. This increased presence in Little Italy represents a deepening of roots for Busalacchi himself, who emigrated to the neighborhood from a village near Palermo in 1965 when he was 8 years old and absent any knowledge of English.
Already imbued with a work ethic that would lead to the ownership of three restaurants by age 38, little Giuseppe Busalacchi went to work selling newspapers outside General Dynamics. Since he didn't know how to read U.S. coins, he resorted to matching them against nickel-, dime- and quarter-size circles drawn on a piece of cardboard. At 13, he lied about his age to get a job washing dishes at Hob Nob Hill, where legendary proprietor Harold Hoersch soon elevated him to pot washing, then to the preparation of club sandwiches. In short order he took on more complicated tasks.
By the time he was 20, Busalacchi had shipped out as chef aboard the Castagnola family's San Diego-based tuna boat, which sailed for four-month stretches and provided precious little entertainment to its crew other than what was served on their plates. Busalacchi explains, "Most of my cooking came from my mom, but I learned a lot on the boat, especially how to make good, hearty food."
And before marrying Lisa Jacobs in 1981, Busalacchi returned to Sicily for six months to work and learn in the trattorias there. Lisa Busalacchi says of her husband and business partner: "I've discovered over the years that a chef is like an artist, and what he does is an inner thing that can't just be learned. Joe is at one with food."
Joe Busalacchi may be at one with food, but he performs on three very different stages. And if he puts on superlative shows at the new Cafe Zucchero and the neighboring Trattoria Fantastica, it is because he has acquired so much expertise in the nearly 11 years he has spent ruling the range at his flagship, Busalacchi's. This Hillcrest restaurant, by far the most formal of the trio, occupies a pleasantly restored house, in which several small rooms and a broad front terrace are devoted to guests.
The dim lights and relatively formal service make this perhaps the dressiest restaurant in this corner of town, but what makes the place noteworthy is a menu heavily influenced by the Sicilian affection for sweet-and-sour and piquant effects. One appetizer that combines all of these quite handsomely is the caponata ($4.75), a superb blend of eggplant, olives, celery and capers in tomato sauce. Served chilled (room temperature might be preferable), it provides a bracing opening to a meal and can be shared with ease by two diners.
The starter list also includes such inevitables as Caesar salad ($4.50), shrimp cocktail ($8.95) and fried calamari ($5.25), but these should not distract discerning eaters from treats such as the artichokes baked in cheese-rich white sauce ($6.95) or the fancy crêpes filled with pesto and topped with white sauce ($5.95). To set out in a hearty and very Sicilian style, order the insalata Siciliana ($5.50), a garlic- and oregano-flavored tumble of chilled potatoes, onions, green beans and tomatoes.
The pasta list, while lengthy, is relatively free of clichés. One Sicilian classic that features savory, sweet and sharp flavors is the pasta con sarde ($14.95), a dish that requires the diner to like sardines, in this case teamed with currants, fennel, pine nuts and tomato sauce. Busalacchi's ship-galley days may be reflected in the lasagnette ($14.95), a layering of noodles with albacore, capers, green olives and fresh tomatoes. The gnocchi ($12.50), or potato dumplings, are light as a feather and served quite generously, topped a piacere: with whichever sauce you wish. For another light but savory pasta dish, try the spaghetti with eggplant cubes in marinara sauce ($11.50).
Like the chef in the wonderful film Big Night, Busalacchi may dislike having to include on his entrée list such American favorites as eggplant parmigiana ($11.50) and veal Marsala ($15.95), although he does them well. Of more interest are items such as the bracciole ($15.95)-sliced veal rolls stuffed with hard-boiled egg, diced salami and breadcrumbs-and the related spiedini ($15.95), grilled, breaded veal scallops filled with cheeses, green onions and salami. For seafood, Busalacchi offers an unusual stuffed swordfish ($16.95) and a house cioppino of fish stewed with tomatoes, potatoes and onions ($17.95).
Busalacchi's serves lunch weekdays and dinner nightly at 3683 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest; 298-0119. Reservations are suggested.
It takes a rare degree of self-confidence to christen an eatery in quite the way Busalacchi chose for his second establishment: Trattoria Fantastica by Busalacchi. A couple of tables occupy a patch of sidewalk near the entrance to this Little Italy restaurant, which also features an intimate and quite comfortable courtyard at the rear. But the informal main dining room has an attraction of its own-the many antipasto platters arranged along a counter that fronts the open kitchen.
Every day brings a different display from a repertoire that includes octopus salad, marinated grilled vegetables, cold eggplant parmigiana, shrimp in tomato sauce, roasted cauliflower with anchovies, assorted cheeses with olives-and a good bit more. Formerly, this appetizer buffet was available at a reasonable charge as a first course, but now it is offered strictly as a main event at $9.95, a price that allows you to heap your plate with everything that appeals. It would be nice to return to the practice of offering a smaller portion as an opener.
Since Trattoria Fantastica boasts a wood-fired pizza oven, the bread basket often contains slices of irresistible hot-from-the-oven pizza bread sprinkled with minced garlic and rosemary. This naturally suggests a pizza as entrée, and the menu features beautiful versions garnished variously with prosciutto, mushrooms and arugula ($8.95) and rock shrimp, grilled vegetables, mozzarella and marinara sauce ($9.95).
For the exquisite sausage pizza ($7.95), the star ingredient is made just across the street at India Street's landmark butcher shop, Pete's. This sausage reappears in a piquant dish of rigatoni with capers, olives, hot peppers and tomato sauce ($11.95); other pastas of note are the spaghetti Napoli ($9.95) with organic tomatoes, arugula and garlic, and the classic linguine con cozze ($12.95), flat pasta ribbons with a tangy sauté of mussels, red peppers, garlic and tomatoes. Among interesting entrée choices are the sausage sautéed with peppers, onions and potatoes ($9.95) and a pork spiedini ($13.95) that includes pine nuts, raisins and prosciutto in its stuffing.
Trattoria Fantastica serves lunch and dinner daily at 1735 India Street; 234-1735. Reservations are accepted.
But it is Cafe Zucchero that suddenly has thrust Joe Busalacchi into the spotlight. Like neighbor Trattoria Fantastica, it features a few sidewalk tables and a comfortable, very private back garden, but once again the interest is focused most intensely in the small, marble-floored main room, where jewel-tone pastries and ice creams occupy the glass cases like so many gems in Tiffany's window.
However, the sweets are only half the story, since there also are savory snacks to eat on the premises or take home, including crisply fried rice croquettes filled with cheese or highly seasoned minced meat, and panini, the sandwich-like pastry crusts folded around ham and cheese and other fillings. Relatively brief (but fun) lunch and dinner menus offer composed vegetable salads from the display cases-the marinated mushroom caps look especially savory and appealing, as do the roasted peppers-as well as baby squid in spicy tomato sauce ($5.25), a daily soup ($3.50) that, with luck, will be the truly wonderful brew of lentils, and an excellent plate of three sharp cheeses ($4.50) decorated with chopped olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
For more serious fare, there is capellini with a lively cargo of chicken and creamy pesto sauce ($9.95), a risotto with shellfish, green beans and tomatoes ($13.95), and even a grilled fillet of beef crowned with caramelized onions ($13.95).
The question of dessert is, in a sense, a cruel one, since there is so much from which to choose-and it all is sensational. The cannoli may seem a somewhat pedestrian choice, although these may well be the best in the county. It probably would be safe to close your eyes, point in the direction of one of the dessert cases and eat whatever the server brings. In fact, you may want to point twice, or even thrice.
Cafe Zucchero is open daily from mid-morning until midnight or later, at 1731 India Street; 531-1731. Reservations are not required.