(page 1 of 2)location: 1917 India Street, Little Italy
chef: David Campbell
HOW MUCH HAS LITTLE ITALY CHANGED? I remember calling Filippi’s to order a pizza one Sunday night in 1989. After painting my living room, a friend and I couldn’t dine out—not in seedy shorts and T-shirts splattered with three shades of Sherwin- Williams. I left with the remark “I hope nobody recognizes me.” I returned with a pepperoni pie and the news: “I was one of the more formally dressed people there.”
Today, Little Italy’s India Street is remaking itself as San Diego’s version of Melrose Avenue. Some locals now call it “The Street,” and among the costly new shops is a confectioner called CHI that charges $9.95 for five-piece “flights” (tastings; think wine) of exquisite, flown-from-Paris Michel Cluizel chocolates. A block away at Joe and Lisa Busalacchi’s relaxed but elegant Po Pazzo, which opened in late May, a pair of diners can follow a $35 shellfish platter with a couple of $34 New York steaks. The prime beef is à la carte, by the way, and Rancho Santa Fe folks are welcome.
Some San Diegans remember the building as a neighborhood cinema, and despite extensive remodeling, the humpbacked roof recalls the silver screen. Inside Po Pazzo, the curve of the roof is subtly saluted by the arching frame of the open kitchen, tinted varying shades of pink by heat lamps spaced above the service counter.
The Busalacchis, who already own a couple of eateries along The Street, decided Little Italy needed a steakhouse, and because the neighborhood hasn’t been this Italian in decades (it perhaps has become too zealously thematic), the menu is embroidered with such offerings as breaded eggplant with marinara sauce and Gorgonzola ($6.50) and an exceptionally hearty plate of spaghetti with meatballs —— and beef ribs and Italian sausage($23.95).
Chef David Campbell from Toronto supervises the cuisine, and this 25-year-old’s lack of Italian heritage does not lessen his considerable ability to prepare upscale versions of favorites —like saltimbocca, the famous dish of veal scallops flavored with fresh sage ($23.95). Pretty to look at—the sage leaves appear to be inlaid under the crisp, nano-thin flour coating —the saltimbocca eats well, thanks to overlays of salty prosciutto, soft fontina cheese and musky porcini mushroom sauce. Steaks and other grilled meats may be innocent of garnish, but the five dishes specified as entrées arrive as composed plates. For the saltimbocca, this means lovely sautéed spinach, as well as mashed potatoes. Rebel against this inappropriate side, ask for potato gnocchi instead, and you may be both accommodated and happier.
Depending on the size, mood and Cosmopolitan-tolerance of the crowd, guests may or may not hear Sinatra played above the conversations. Whether it’s quiet or celebratory, the place offers plenty for the eye to enjoy, notably a giant spray of fresh flowers in a vast vase near the kitchen, brick columns and a dramatically lighted bar.
“Po Pazzo” could be translated as “wild and crazy,” and the concept amuses with such details as glasses that appear to tilt away from the hand, curving silverware and other visual jests. Experienced restaurateurs, the Busalacchis hire experienced servers, and when reviewed, the service delighted on every occasion.
So did the food. Campbell understands what looks good, tastes good and serves well, and while there are odd holes in the menu (a steakhouse without baked potatoes?), there also are such pleasantries as a thoroughly satisfying iceberg lettuce “wedge” ($6) dressed up not merely with lots and lots of blue cheese and a sophisticated vinaigrette but with French-fried shallot slices. These are exactly like miniature onion rings, and they turn the salad into a rather ritzy party dish.
There is a daily soup, aggressively priced at $6.50 (yes, Campbell dispatches a big bowl), and if it’s a boiling-hot purée of the specialty vegetable known as rapini, reserve your serving at once. It’s the color of split-pea soup but has a more exclusive, more downtown-uptown taste, and is a very different but successful way to open a steak dinner.
The many first courses include quite satisfactory Dungeness crab cakes with a tart lime “emulsion” sauce ($11), a grilled artichoke with garlic mayonnaise ($8.50), an aromatic bowl of mussels and clams steamed in seasoned white wine ($10.95) and a Caesar salad that gets the job done ($7).