Barbusa Trades Old-World Italian Sophistication for Lively, Social Dining
The Little Italy eatery isn't perfect, but it's a huge hit for one of San Diego's top restaurant families
Barbusa in Little Italy
1917 India Street,
Tempura Squash Blossoms
Funghi e Tartufo
I wasn’t raised eating fillet, unless those slices of bologna in the yellow plastic package can be considered a stack of sticky fillets. Growing up in northeast San Diego, we had pretty marginal dining options. That area was largely built in the ’70s, when “a big mall” was considered the sexiest thing you could get in a neighborhood. So we mostly ate fast food. I was fed by freezers and factories, not chefs.
Sure, I’d been to Mister A’s or El Bizcocho when an old person we loved had a birthday. Those restaurants were grand, opulent rooms—the kind I’d seen the bald guy take orphan Annie to or watched a movie character awkwardly trying not to commit a crippling social faux pas in. One time in high school, my mom took me to dinner in Hillcrest, possibly to show me that better things existed for boys who stopped committing petty crimes. The restaurant was set up in an old house that architecture nerds would go nuts for. It didn’t feel like a restaurant; it felt inspired, creative, adaptive, as if I’d been invited to a dinner by a friend. I hadn’t yet discovered the word “bistro,” but for me, Busalacchi’s was a whole new way to experience food.
Their Italian cuisine was unlike any I’d ever experienced. The pasta was fresh, and the sauces were shockingly deep with flavor. My taste buds were startled awake, a little fiendish for this new experience.
Joe Busalacchi is a big deal among San Diego restaurateurs. He began cooking on a local fishing boat, then parlayed that into a couple of modest pizza restaurants before opening Busalacchi’s in 1986. It was a star, even in a gay neighborhood that knew its food. His success continued; at one point he and his family owned eight restaurants in the area.
Thirty years later, America’s long-standing icons are on the outside of restaurant culture. Diners once coveted their “regular” spots—places they’d return to again and again, until they finally got their name on the wall or were invited to the chef’s wedding—now they’re hyperactively obsessed with The New. Dining at restaurants has become an exercise in whack-a-mole, as we zip from hot new thing to even hotter newer thing. A proven track record has been abandoned in favor of a fresh track.
Not a surprise, then, that Busalacchi’s star has been elbowed out by newer, bigger names like Richard Blais and Brian Malarkey. Over the last handful of years, it seems the narrative for the Busalacchi group has been about reinvention and adaptation, a “heralded rebirth” instead of “yet another winner.”
So when it was announced that their steakhouse, Po Pazzo, was reconceptualizing as Barbusa—a shot at the social dining trend—I averted my eyes. But I’ve never seen a Busalacchi dining room so alive, loud, and full of life. Barbusa opened six months ago, so this isn’t the regular gathering of moths to the new light. This seems to have staying power.
It seems the entire Busalacchi family is on deck for this modern Sicilian concept. Joe’s nephew Nino Zizzo is executive chef, while his sons P. J. and Joseph manage the vibe and the room.
The large space is equally divided into two sections, the bar area and the dining room; the latter is decked with giant Warholian pop art of famous Italians. There’s an obligatory plant wall or two, and beige leather banquettes. The gray cloth chairs are far too short and feel like you’re flying coach class on a disreputable airline. The front glass wall opens wide to let in that expensive San Diego sun. Two high-end, cherry-red meat slicers flank the open kitchen. Cured meats hang like trophies in a glass case. And people occupy every seat, while others hover around waiting for a spot. The room is riotous, almost too loud with cheer.
There’s a dedicated crudo bar, where a former chef from much-respected Hane Sushi churns out Sicilian riffs on raw fish. For one, chunks of salmon are rolled in thinly sliced cucumber (instead of traditional seaweed), studded with Calabrian chilies (the jalapeño of Italy), pea shoots, chili oil, sesame oil, and a drizzle of herb pesto. For another, delicate slices of yellowtail are topped with thin potato, truffle oil, and chives. Our first order is so incredibly oversalted, I glance to the kitchen to make sure my ex-wife isn’t in there. We inform our server, who replaces it without hesitation, and the second order is just fine.
The fried squash blossoms—stuffed with four cheeses—are predictably delicious. It’s a flower, stuffed with good cheese and deep-fried. If you mess that up, you should consider other professions.
They’ve got a wood-burning oven that cranks out a new, delicious focaccia every day. The staff is excellent and well-informed. Our server is a charming young transplant from Italy who seems to reverse the onset of menopause in a few female guests. He knows his food, too, and speaks about it in a thick Italian accent that is genuine, not preserved and overarticulated for show. I give my date permission to leave me forever if he wishes to form a family with her, or just form a weekend. A hostess has Madison Avenue perfume-ad beauty. I think the interior decorator had a hand in the hiring process.
Their bruschetta is a mason jar full of chilled eggplant and a big knuckle of burrata cheese submerged in pomodoro (herbed tomato sauce, a Busalacchi calling card). The sauce is grandmother good: the sweet tomato acid, the aromatic herbs, and the low note of good olive oil. The dish has a temperature problem, though. Burrata is a marvelous moment in cheese, its appeal mostly textural—a tough, mozzarella exterior giving way on the bite to a soft, creamy, luscious center. The only thing you have to do with burrata is let it come to room temp, rub it with oil and salt, and eat. Dunked in this chilled eggplant-pomodoro sauce, however, it seizes up and loses its charm.
The pastas are all made fresh; Busalacchis start hand-rolling pasta shortly after birth. All seem seasoned just short of adequately salty. This is fine, if the nice older gentleman with the freshly grated Parmesan makes it to your table. One night, he makes it to ours. The second night, he doesn’t, and every dish is a dash of Parmesan short of great. I would make grated Parm and lemon zest a must for most dishes on their menu.
Try the ravioletti with that pomodoro sauce, artichoke, mascarpone cheese, and basil. The funghi e tartufo with casarecce pasta, black truffle oil, oyster mushrooms, pecorino sardo, and whipped panna is sinfully good. My favorite pasta, bucatini, doesn’t fare so well with a sauce made of Sicilian sausage, cauliflower, pine nuts, currants, saffron, and bread crumbs. The flavors riot in every direction.
From the entrées, stick to the salmon with a pistachio crust, panna, Dijon mustard, and yam puree. We try the chicken, and it’s underseasoned and a little dry. The duroc pork tomahawk is cooked perfectly to temp, but it lacks seasoning and needs more chimichurri for acid.
For dessert, the lemon ricotta cheesecake is full of flavor and a perfect way to end a meal.
Our second night in the restaurant, one of Joe’s sons tells us his father hated this idea of louder, social dining. He loved old-world Italian sophistication. But it’s working at Barbusa, and it’s reviving one of San Diego’s good restaurant names.