Il Dandy's Great Expectations
The food at the much-hyped Bankers Hill restaurant is well executed—but occasionally too innovative for its own good
2250 Fifth Avenue, Suite 120, Bankers Hill
Ravioli di pasta kina
Being hyped is being forced to walk on stilts. The air up there is cleaner, and less oxygenated. The good view is hazy with expectations. Everyone gawks, demands to be entertained. Do stilt-walkery things! Regale us with your skills of altitude! Sometimes stilt-walkers would just like to climb down, blend in, do good work. To be lifted by that work, not expectations.
But, deal with it, right? Some people toil their whole life for just a little hype.
Il Dandy in Bankers Hill is a 5,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor restaurant made of tile and marble and hype and stilts. Huge glass doors open into a dining room, pristine white as advertisement teeth. Chairs are edged in gold, upholstered with suede the color of damp basil. Their PR team had to put an “art guide” together on account of all the modern art on display. The owners are exceedingly dapper Italian men, a coterie of boot-tip Ryan Goslings. If fashionable Italian gourmands are your drug of choice, Il Dandy is your kingpin.
The big news, and hyperbole dilemma, is in Il Dandy’s kitchen. Specifically the two chefs, Antonio and Luca Abruzzino. Father and son have both won Michelin stars for their work at their namesake restaurant in Calabria, Italy. Their good family friends—brothers Dario, Eugenio, and Pietro Gallo—are also from Calabria, and own Civico 1845 in Little Italy. That has been a runaway success, so the Gallos went big (real big) and convinced the Abruzzinos to join Il Dandy, splitting time between the birthplace of the Renaissance and San Diego. Long-distance relationships are hard, but they’re essential for Il Dandy’s long-term success.
The chefs’ Michelin stars are a problem, because guests have been expecting “The Michelin Experience”: real Grant Achatz–type art-cuisine wiccanry. They expect lamb cotton candy. They expect forks to be washed in a sous-vide bag so they retain the warmth of your hand throughout your meal. They expect global domination of the food arts.
And that’s not Il Dandy, never was supposed to be. Owner Dario bought his staff the Italian version of Converse Chucks for a reason. Il Dandy, despite its fine sports-car appearance, is meant to be a more casual night out with surprising pops of Michelin-star talent. Maybe they should’ve invested in roll-up garage doors, appreciated less art, scattered some peanut shells on the floor.
The Gallos and Abruzzinos are gambling on a few things with their location at Fifth and Laurel, overlooking Little Italy and Point Loma across the bay. First, that new housing developments will be the smelling salts Bankers Hill needs. Second, that Little Italy is now overcrowded and overpriced, and the restaurant scene has to spill over to a saner place nearby. Bankers is best known for walking tours of Irving Gill architecture and boutique medical offices (thus the nickname, Pill Hill). Il Dandy is on the bottom floor of the “Mister A’s building,” and across the street is Cucina Urbana (which can’t be terribly pleased with a new Italian competitor). With Balboa Park a block away—and the park’s weird inability to get quality dining aside from The Prado or Panama 66—Bankers Hill has promise.
“Do you know how caciocavallo cheese got its name?” asks a server. “The Italian farmers would strap it to their horses and the cheese would get a distinctive, horse-made shape.” She goes on to describe each ingredient in brief but vivid detail. How this acid burrows a hole in that fat.
This is hospitality. In a day when servers are being replaced by iPads and duck confits are being GPS’d to your house by Hondas, this sort of meal ambassador—a human with a not-fake smile and knowledge of the minutiae and history that enrich your experience—is vital, and rare.
The central bar, which is underpopulated early in the week when we dine, is headed by Cesar Sandoval (ex-Catania), armed with brandies and Aperols and herbs. The Diamante is a summer cure-all, with mezcal, génépy (a chamomile-like digestif), watermelon juice, basil, and vanilla, garnished with a makrut lime leaf, a Thai ingredient that smells nostalgically like Fruity Pebbles. You wouldn’t think adding herbs to a gin cocktail was a good idea, since the juniper spirit is so strong. But with thyme, dill, and rosemary, their riff on the gin and tonic (“Running Wilde”) has a more intricate and less bracing harmony of herbs.
So what is Il Dandy? It’s a modern Calabrian seafood-centric restaurant with near-perfect ideals of sustainability and slow food, executed very well but occasionally too innovative for its own good. The chefs are buying whole fish from local fishing families—primarily the Saraspes from Pacific Beach, who’ve been fishing local waters since the ’50s. When the Saraspes caught a 185-pound bluefin and called Il Dandy, the Abruzzinos took it, butchered it, breaded it in housemade breadcrumbs and Italian herbs (parsley, basil, rosemary, and dill) and seared it, the center pink and raw and so fresh it was almost alive. That sort of spot-on simplicity carries into their calamari. Most restaurants treat squid like a crime, attempting to cover it up by deep-frying the micro-monster and drowning it in sauces. Il Dandy’s is nude, silken, and lightly fried with olive oil and salt. Beneath is a restrained portion of roasted bell peppers, with texture from a squid-ink cracker.
Spot prawns are brought in live (the Saraspes are one of only 15 boats in California allowed to catch spot prawns), then pounded into a carpaccio as thin and shear as a nightclub dress. Seasoned with housemade citrus salt (made of bergamot, oranges, mandarins, lemons) and olive oil, it’s going great until—that red onion sorbet. Here’s where Il Dandy’s creativity gets in the way a bit. The red onion sorbet is what food from Michelin chefs should be—shocking, thought-provoking, fun, the last thing you’d expect over raw seafood. But anything frozen seizes up the taste buds—and the sorbet portion is massive, which clobbers a very delicate delicacy. Disparaging creativity hurts, but let’s lean into it for a second, because it happens again later, when otherwise perfect strawberry panna cotta is disrupted by a sheath of vermouth gelatin (we scrape it to the side).
Il Dandy’s menu works best when ideas don’t fight flavor for the spotlight. Like the pork belly (sous-vide 24 hours) with a simple cherry red wine sauce and mustard. Just when you think you’re tired of bacon with gigantism, this self-contained meat lasagna makes your pork lust flare up. Or their pizzas, which are made with three different kinds of wheat (whole, 00, and spelt) with less than one gram of yeast, then fermented 24 hours (Il Dandy’s dough starter is over 100 years old). The result is a light, digestible, excellent pie. The best is the Buongustaia, a red sauce with pumpkin puree, guanciale (cured pork jowl), Italian truffle shavings, and Calabrian pecorino. The Abruzzinos love orange zest, which is electrifying in doses, but the Calabria pizza overdoses. Too orangey. Tastes like halftime at youth soccer.
Their summer salad is textbook minimalist composition, with cubes of summer-ripe peaches, yellow and red cherry tomatoes, Tropea red onion, basil, and Calabrian chili peppers, topped with perfectly seared yellowtail. Its success is in knowledge of flavors, not cooking.
The pasta is, unsurprisingly, what evinces true moans of pleasure here. First, the gnocchi, fluffed pillows as they should be, laid with a wild pork ragu (braised 10 hours) and four Italian cheeses (Parm, pecorino, gorgonzola, Taleggio), and a fondue foam. The lightly sweet meat ragu against the blue cheese funk is special. The “Ravioli di Pasta Kina” is aptly named. Kingly. Ravioli stuffed with beef cheek ragu and a chickpea-egg mousse, topped with a Parmigiano foam. The only under-wow is the cavatelli made of burnt flour grains (grano arso, an Italian tradition), with rabbit ragu, hazelnut, and truffle. This is a dish that depends on the black truffle, and ours are lifeless, usually the result of poor storage or age.
We try only one entrée, the one I always order as a true test of a kitchen: the chicken. Chicken doesn’t help a chef like, say, a ribeye. It just lies there. And Il Dandy’s is a wonder. A Jidori is pounded thin and glazed with rosemary chicken-stock reduction. Great on its own, it’s taken to ridiculous levels with the creamy potato foam. It’s sinful; bad in the best way.
For desserts, get that strawberry flan and kick out the vermouth gelée, or go with their tiramisu—a recipe from Chef Luca’s mom with an amaretto ladyfinger and a lava flow of mascarpone.
The hype surrounding Il Dandy wasn’t overblown as much as misinterpreted. This isn’t Eleven Madison or Benu, by design. It’s a stylish place that feels a tad overdesigned for what it wants to be—a modern Italian neighborhood restaurant that’s obsessed with local slow food. A place for star chefs to come back down to earth.