Food and wine, Fabrizio Cavallini says, “is a good reason to die.” Specifically, he’s talking about the neighboring Monello and Bencotto restaurants on Little Italy’s trendy West Fir Street. “If you can choose how to die, take food.”
It’s a telling comment from a chef whose cuisine, to repeat a hugely overworked phrase, is to die for. The Modena-born Fabrizio occasionally slips hometown treats onto Monello’s mostly Milan-style “street food” menu of artisan salamis and cheeses, rugged pizzas and finger foods. His torta bonissima, created in the hungry years after World War II, makes much from little by encasing walnuts and rum in a light crust splashed with chocolate-Chardonnay sauce. It’s simple and exceptional and typical of the best Italian cooking.
Fabrizio is the “author” of Monello’s new panini d’autore, deluxe toasted sandwiches built of house-made bread that rises over four days (developing rich flavors) to accommodate fillings like truffle-flavored ham with sautéed mushrooms, creamy mozzarella and truffle aioli. Other sandwiches star speck, the fine ham from Italy’s Alpine regions, genuine Parma prosciutto and Jidori chicken, along with grilled vegetables and fancy lubricants like Gorgonzola sauce and black olive aioli. Although it is substantial, co-proprietor Guido Nistri encourages guests to preface panini with glasses of made-on-premises vermouth and plates of elegant cured meats and cheeses exclusive to Monello. Raspaduras repose in glass-fronted (and locked) refrigerators. These 75-pound cannonballs of Parmesan cheese serve multiple purposes, including being reduced to nutty-flavored shavings served in tall paper cones. Paired with a plate of cacciatorino boar sausage, this is food to live for.
BEFORE OPENING HIS OWN restaurants, Guido cooked at Solare, the stylishly decorated Liberty Station venue that underperformed chef/proprietor Stefano Cerasoli’s expectations. Tech entrepreneur Randy Smerik surprised everybody by retaining the name and décor when he purchased the place and accomplished what very few wannabe-restaurateurs do by creating a sterling success. Solare’s good looks proved a solid platform for chef Accursio Lota’s user-friendly but sophisticated menu. San Diegans demand certain dishes, and Solare turns out both a handsome eggplant parmigiana and Sicilian meatballs baked with pecorino cheese and tomato sauce. These lure diners to try less usual fare, like elaborately presented black truffle risotto with seared scallops and a daily catch with artichokes, clams, house-smoked garlic and prosecco sauce. The pizza page suggests one topped irresistibly with pears and Gorgonzola.
PIZZA, PIZZA, PIZZA. San Diego has an endless appetite for savory pies of all descriptions. Eno — the one-of-a-kind, wine-and-chocolate bistro at Hotel del Coronado — now bakes tender-crusted Neapolitan pizzas outdoors in a wood-fired oven. Classics are joined by a few specialties; the calorie-easy Giardino Fresco with grilled asparagus, roasted red peppers and ricotta provides an excuse to continue with handcrafted chocolates and Eno’s irrepressibly rich butterscotch pudding. At downtown’s The Headquarters at Seaport District (the former cop shop next to Seaport Village), the ultra-trendy Pizzeria Mozza arrives as fourth in a rarefied chain with locations in Los Angeles, Newport Beach and Singapore. Pricey but packed, it attracts with pies laden with Brussels sprouts, cured pork belly, red onion and mozzarella (18 bucks, my oh my), and starters like baked bone marrow and a bruschetta of Tuscan-style white beans.
IMPRESSIVLEY UPSCALE, The Headquarters dallies with details like valet-only parking ($10 at lunch, $15 at nightfall), which never has been terrifically popular with locals. What will please everybody is the huge, built-for-action Puesto, a full-scale restaurant based on the small original one in downtown La Jolla. Imaginative tacos dominate the menu. If you’re in the mood to kick up your heels, the tortilla overflowing with lobster, crisp onions, black beans, cilantro cream and avocado is a party on a plate. No wonder manager Eric Adler styles himself “Tacoteur.” At the center’s main entry, the delight-packed Dallmann Fine Chocolates sells a pair of chocolate-coated salt butter caramels for $5 that are tasty. But when the tough plastic packaging resisted all efforts to open it by hand, a cruelly long walk home ensued.
WHISPERS HAVE CIRCULATED about perfect cuisine at Coronado’s Chez Loma, which has changed hands several times since Ken Irvine sold it to pursue other interests, such as creating a massive new eatery in Imperial Beach for the Cohn Restaurant Group. Current proprietor Andres Girault’s escargot keeps company with mushrooms, sweetbreads and asparagus, a ravishing prelude to crab-crusted halibut in vermouth beurre blanc, and a town-and-country marriage of roast duck in Port-cherry sauce and braised cabbage.
TATTLETALES TELL that recently redecorated Tapenade, La Jolla’s emphatically French flagship, soon will relocate elsewhere in the village.
By David Nelson