Restaurant Review: Catania
Catania takes the early risk at La Plaza, and it’s paying off for now
7863 Girard Avenue,
Squid Ink Corzetti
I can’t remember if the early bird gets the worm or the second mouse gets the cheese. Point is, being first has its pluses and minuses. Sometimes the trailblazer gets caught in the thicket and dies lonely and afraid. Sometimes the trailblazer discovers California and the shiny gold stuff in its dirt.
Catania is the trailblazer at La Plaza in La Jolla—a 27,000-square-foot, freshly renovated retail complex off Prospect Street. Walking up the faded red Spanish-tile steps of the white, three-story building, you realize Catania is the only one open for business.
In their case, the early bird got the choice location—the top-floor corner perch looking out over Girard Avenue with a view of the Grand Colonial Hotel, framed by the Pacific Ocean. Sitting on the 45-seat patio near sunset is arguably one of the best views in La Jolla.
Ten minutes before magic hour, Catania’s automatic shade curtains rise in unison to reveal the sunset. It’s theatrical, like the old days when movie curtains lifted just as the lights dimmed. It inspires diners to ooh, ahh, and snap selfies. The vibe is casually upscale—men who smell of money in expensive button-ups rolled to the elbow with jeans and flip-flops. It feels like a dinner party on the patio of your wealthiest friend’s Spanish ranch-style home.
THE STAR DISH: Yellowfin crudo with melon-yogurt gazpacho, melon-cucumber granita, avocado, and chile oil.
BlueMotif Architecture installed stained wood-and-glass la cantina doors, which open from the dining room to the patio, creating a seamless indoor-outdoor space. There is seating on the ledge, with succulents hung in planters and placed on the pillars of the rail.
Given the history of this space, Catania could also be considered a first responder. This was a hub of high-living after-darkness from 2003 to 2009 as Jack’s. But Jack’s bookkeeper famously embezzled millions, taking the restaurant down with her (she is currently oranging the new black). For six years, the building has been to La Jolla what Pernicano’s is to Hillcrest—a large, vacant stain on an otherwise nice part of town.
Billed as coastal Italian, Catania is the third concept from the restaurant group that—under restaurateur Arturo Kassel and chef Ryan Johnston—brought San Diego Whisknladle and Prepkitchen. The duo researched the idea during a two-week road trip through Italy. Johnston handles menu design for all concepts; the exec chef on duty at Catania is Vince Schofield, formerly of Nombe and Taco Libre in San Francisco.
Catania’s menu revolves around the wood-fired oven, making “roasted” the most common word on the menu. In the farro that’s served with the wood-grilled quail, roasted Concord grapes add a dark sweetness to offset the cave-aged funk of blue cheese. It’s a unique flavor combination that works, even if the quail itself is a tad under-seasoned. Another appetizer features roasted peaches, perfectly caramelized and charred, then wrapped in thin shavings of prosciutto. Atop toast, spread with ricotta and drizzled with honey and saba (sweet Italian syrup made from grape must), it’s decadent, but also too sweet and overloaded with smoke. Roasting has turned the fruit’s bright, sweet notes into deep, stewed fruit. The dish needs an un-roasted, acidic component.
The good news is that those are the only real grumbles we have over two trips. Also good news is Schofield’s yellowfin crudo. At first glance, raw fish and yogurt sound less like a winning idea and more like a gastrointestinally painful one. But the high-quality tuna is served in a light pool of melon yogurt. Then, zanily, he adds a melon-cucumber granita (flavored ice) with a thick slice of cucumber and a touch of jalapeño oil. The resulting combination is unbelievably good—the almost warm protein (as crudo should be served) in the sweet fruit cream, then a shock of refreshing ice, the natural fat of the avocado, and the spicy heat of the oil. A dish-of-the-year contender.
Also very good is the purslane and peaches salad. Purslane is a rarely seen green with thick leaves that retain moisture, almost like a thin ice plant. Served with slices of perfectly ripe peach, dates for a bolt of intense sweetness, and pecorino toscano (hard sheep’s-milk cheese), it challenges you to expand your repertoire of greens in the best way.
Pizzas are big at Catania. I tried three, two of which were excellent. Schofield ferments the dough for two days, developing a rich, complex flavor. A simple white-sauce cheese pizza reeks of garlic, pleasantly so. The lardo Iberico pizza with fresh mozzarella and fontina, chili oil, Parmesan, and parsley is outstanding. The only miss is the merguez (spicy lamb sausage) and padron pepper pie. Topped with full leaves of fresh oregano, it tastes like a bingo room smells. Like huffing perfume.
Both housemade pastas we try are also very good. First, the duck sugo orecchiette with torn pieces of duck confit, tomato, porcini mushrooms, and Parmesan, lightly finished with cream. And then the squid ink corzetti—which is coins of black pasta literally stamped with the Catania logo—served under scallops, mussels, fennel sausage, bread crumbs, and crab stock. It’s loaded, almost like a pasta version of cioppino.
Service at Catania is highly informed and stylishly casual. A waiter in a denim button-down talks so in-depth about each dish (and how he helped plant the squash himself on Whisknladle’s new farm) that it borders on a Portlandia spoof of fine-dining TMI. But I’ll take OCD-informed over uninformed 12 days a week.
For the entrées, the wild Alaskan king salmon comes perfectly cooked with a pink center and crispy skin. It’s served in a huge serving of corn polenta, spiked with roasted chanterelle and oyster mushrooms, and agretti (aka friar’s beard, a fleshy, needle-shaped herb with a vibrant, grassy flavor). The polenta, however, has been refined into an almost mousse-like consistency, which is hard to stomach as a main dish component.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the spit-roasted half duck. It will make you say the best expletives. It’s splayed out on the plate with roasted shallots, Rainier cherries, pancetta, and a bay leaf and honey–pine nut gremolata. The honey gremolata almost acts as a glaze on perfectly cooked skin. It’s messy. So split it with someone who values pleasure over composure.
SPITTING IMAGE: Spit-roasted duck with roasted cherries, shallots, and pancetta,in a pine nut-and- honey gremolata.
Catania’s bar program is almost exclusively Italian, with one notable exception: a Belgo/Italian herbed ale (basil and lemongrass) from San Diego’s New English Brewing, brewed exclusively for Catania. The rest is Italian craft. That’s a bold move, especially in Craft Beer Town, U.S.A. But it’s a good move. You can find San Diego’s designer suds anywhere; you can’t, however, taste Italy’s version of Stone Brewing.
Whisknladle Hospitality has always been a forerunner in the craft cocktail scene. Renowned Snake Oil Cocktail Co. started in their bar. At Catania they continue that with esteemed classics (Aperol spritz, mules, il Padrino, etc.) and innovative riffs (a “Sicilian Sour” with orange, tea, whiskey, averna, Carpano Antica, and bitters). Their “Bevanda Fumoso” with gin, sage liqueur, Carpano bianco, celery, and house-smoked olives is beyond excellent. They could sell those olives by the jar.
At the end of the day, La Plaza is lucky to have Catania. It’s a very good restaurant, not surprising given the group’s track record. Anywhere you dine, you hope to find 80 percent solid, flavorful dishes and a few that simply blow your mind. And that’s what Catania gave us. I would sit here on the patio, wait for the curtains to rise, and selfie with the sun over and over again.
And once the remainder of La Plaza fills up, it’ll be a full-blown destination off the main strip.