… AS WILL YOU, at the entry to Guido Nistri and Valentina di Pietro’s masterful Monello in the glorious Q Building in Little Italy. When Nistri was a boy growing up in Milan, the endearment by which an Italian mother refers to a child — Monello (“Little Devil”) — became his second name.
In late November, the co-proprietor of the eternally sizzling Bencotto passed the name to his hot-as-Hades new eatery next door. The space tempted him the moment Underbelly, the noodle house below, abandoned plans to open a bar designed around a “Japanese ice program.” Underbelly’s cold feet lit a fire under Nistri, who persuaded tireless Bencotto chef Fabrizio Cavallini to do double duty and built a devilishly attractive space that references Milan in accent décor and a menu heavy on street-food snacks like panzerotti, or fried miniature calzone.
Monello (pictured above) shares Bencotto’s secluded laboratorio, in which Cavallini hand rolls gnocchi, shapes pasta and otherwise defines “labor intensive.” House breads backdrop multiple cured meats (starring artisan-crafted felino salami) and cheeses, superbly augmented by spaghetti specialties, molto autentico pizzas and polentas, choice meat and seafood entrées and veggies galore. Get in line.
Liberty Station’s Solare, on the other hand, opened on the wrong foot with a menu too authentic for San Diego and, despite amending its approach, never reached top speed. After years peddling uphill, chef/proprietor Stefano Cerasoli sold the place to Randy Smerik, who retains the name but cooks Italiano his way.
IF IT NO LONGER WADDLES LIKE A DUCK, it may be canard confit, the luscious, long-simmered French fowl preserved in its own fat. The meat keeps perfectly in the wine cellar and months later can be reheated to extraordinarily tender perfection encased in crackling-crisp skin. Two San Diego chefs, inspired by Baja cookery, use confit as a starting point rather than an end in itself.
At Kelvin, the colorful new restaurant that downtown’s W Hotel hopes will resuscitate its years-long role as hipster magnet, Kevin Harry presents confit quesadillas garnished with Brie and pico de gallo. It reflects his intention to take “flavors from all over the world and give them a local twist,” says the former Yankee Stadium executive chef. “So many ingredients I used elsewhere are done with San Diego flair,” adds Harry, who bought local flair by acquiring a convertible shortly after hitting town. “I’m ready to roll,” he observes. Creations, like mojito-spiked shrimp with pineapple-avocado salsa, race as fast as his new wheels.
Table 926 chef/proprietor Matt Richman isn’t nearly old enough to remember Gustaf-Anders, which on Aug. 19, 1980, commenced educating San Diego in the delights of contemporary cuisine at 926 Turquoise Street. A grad of San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, Richman creates his own sensations, such as duck confit carnitas tacos, piled with succulent meat, pickled red onions and two suave salsas. He and fellow S.D. native Gavin Cordes, the personable general manager, easily switch topics from explaining bucatini with braised-lamb ragu and lemon-herb ricotta to appraising the day’s surfing conditions.
IF A STROLL ALONG GARNET AVENUE suggests the street’s economy relies exclusively on tattoo parlors and bars, look more closely. Diligent foodies will eyeball gems like Papa Luna’s empanada shop, purveyor de luxe of half-moon-shaped South American pies with traditional and avant-garde fillings. Next to Costa Brava, the high-line tapas restaurant Pata Negra imports fine Spanish meats, cheeses, canned goods, wines and chocolates. Items
can be remarkably costly, such as jamón Ibérico (a ham among hams); but when you crave the real thing, PN’s got it. Spanish chorizos are plush and plenti-ful; and if you’re searching the tinned anchovies of your dreams, look no further.
“THERE ARE LOTS OF EASIER ways to earn money” than the restaurant business, opines the very talented David Cohen, adding, “You have to love it.” He must, since his recently opened Uptown Tavern in Hillcrest improves upon North Park’s West Coast Tavern by presenting cleverly conceived, quite solid comfort fare (bacon-wrapped dates with goat cheese mousse, waffles with crisp fried chicken and great gobs of garlic butter) in a sophisticated, supper club environment.
THE CITY’S INCREASING ARRAY of wonderful little eateries ideal for when you’re in the neighborhood now includes San Diego Soup Shoppe in North Park. Chef/owner Jeff Shinn eschews butter, but nonetheless brews bold lobster bisque and utterly satisfying Italian wedding soup. Chubby panini, built on artisan breads, include tempters such as roast beef and Muenster with a dill-horseradish spread.
DISH: By David Nelson • Photography by Martin Mann