Reviews & Media Mentions
By Naomi Wise | Published Wednesday, March 12, 2008
San Diego Reader
5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa, 619-463-9919
Attention, all New York expats and other lovers of indulgent, exuberant Italian food: That terrific “secret” Mulberry Street restaurant you loved and still miss has been found again — in a La Mesa strip mall. There, a Sicilian-born chef-owner (just like those in Manhattan’s best trattorias and osterias) turns out a multiregional menu of full-flavored food that gladdens the heart with a warmth and joy you can taste in every bite.
Even in Manhattan’s Little Italy, Antica would easily be a top local restaurant — at least it would be when I lived there, back in the Eocene when Mario Batali was in knee pants. Whatever sent the Lynnester venturing out from Hillcrest to the mysterious East, once again she served as the one-woman scouting party for our eating posse. When her glowing word reached my ear, off we went, with her mom Mary Anne and Ben-the-stew. I’d just eaten at Alexander’s in North Park and was grateful to have my expectations recalibrated before going into print on that one. Yes, Alexander’s is good “neighborhood food,” but Antica is so much more — ambitious, imaginative, wildly generous.
I hear that some people think I don’t like Italian food. Au contraire, I love it too well to readily accept the debased versions served in our own Little Italy and the Gaslamp — where high rents and the “one-night stands” of the convention and tourist trades encourage short-staffing, shortcut cooking with ready-made products, and cheap ingredients. I do like Osteria Pescatore in Del Mar, Firenze and Via Italia in Encinitas, Vivace in Carlsbad, Piatti in La Jolla, Primavera in Coronado, and even Del Medici in the Gaslamp. They all have integrity — but what I feel is liking, and not quite love. What’s missing? That quality that the old TV ads (for some nasty frozen thing, no?) used to call abbondanza — abundance. By which, I don’t mean a big meal, but that lyrical Italian sense of the fullness of life, somehow speaking through the food. And also warmth and hominess, a way of making you feel welcome without requiring that you dude up in your best clothes to go eat pasta. In San Diego, when you manage to find the hominess, it’s usually at some spaghetti-and-meatball joint where the food is dismal.
Antica, at last, really does it for me. This is Italian food — absolute feel-good food — and once you taste it, nothing less will do.
The room’s decor hints at a rustic farmhouse but more saliently evokes an Italian restaurant; that is, it has classic sienna-and-white walls picturing drawings of Italian scenery, and thin, neutral carpeting underfoot to keep down the racket. We ate there on a crowded Friday, when a large wedding rehearsal party was upping the noise and upsetting the routine, and still, both the kitchen and the servers performed adroitly with very few glitches. Even the party noise blew by us once we plunged into the food.
Francesco Basile, the Sicilian-born chef, has cooked at the seaside resorts and the mountain ski towns of Italy, and he knows how to make a dinner taste like a luxury vacation. Contrary to some early “reviews” (e.g., those written by the ad manager of the Union-Tribune), the menu is not Tuscan (with that area’s austere purity) but covers the whole multifaceted boot of Italy, from chic Milan down to rugged Sicily — but if I can judge from the similar cuisine of New York’s Little Italy, the coast near Naples probably has a special spot in the chef’s heart.
Lynne and Ben’s favorite appetizer here is the frittura mixta of barely battered, airy calamari rings and tentacles, shrimp, and artichoke hearts. The dip, happily, is a light garlic-cream sauce rather than the standard pedestrian marinara that overwhelms the delicacy of the other flavors. (Those who ask for marinara can get it.) It is all good — and it stays good, the kitty-bag contents still crisp and light at home the next day.
The most spectacular appetizer we tried was a frequent special, a portobello mushroom lushly stuffed with moist crabmeat, topped with a thin layer of Parmesan and bread crumbs for a touch of crispness, plated over steamed baby spinach, and finished with a touch of buttery lobster stock. I dare not describe the sheer sensuality of the dish in a free paper, as it would edge on porn that kiddies might read. (Contrast and compare to Alexander’s, last week, where button mushrooms had a dryish crab stuffing masked by overbaked, rubbery provolone. Sorry, North Park, but La Mesa has the better deal — at better prices, too.)
Bocconcini (fresh mozzarella) with silky-salty imported San Daniele prosciutto is equally lavish. This is not the standard Gaslamp shortcut of throwing some cheeseballs and fancy ham on a plate with a few snips of raw greenery, but a layered baked delight atop more baby spinach, making a full and rounded array of complementary flavors.
The only disappointing appetizer paired mussels and clams in white wine sauce. The sauce was fine, but on that terribly busy night, the shellfish were a little overcooked. On the other hand, the Italian bread we were dipping into the sauce was freshly house-baked, as always, and still exuding the heady aromas of yeast and wheat.
Let’s digress for a moment to consider wine. White or a red? Whoops — the list includes my favorite Italian white, the rich and full-bodied Lacryma Christi de Vesuvio (from Campagna, the Naples area, near the ancient city of Pompeii). This is the quaff for disdainers of dishwater Pinot Grigios and Soaves, drinkers who want some sunshine in their mouths and plump “legs” running down the glass. For a red, we went with a good mellow Montepulciano, Ben’s fave (and I like it too).
Pastas are too good here to choose just one to share as a mid-course. Instead, we selected two pastas and two entrées for our main dishes. Penne Mazzini is Lynne’s pet pick, with artichoke hearts and that fine prosciutto in cream sauce. It’s a lively, luxurious combination of pleasantly bitter and salty flavors smoothed by the lush fat of the cream. It’s simple but never palls — the assertive flavors keep your mind and mouth involved in every forkful.
Lobster ravioli is a class act all the way, with housemade pasta (not the typical purchased pockets of most local restaurants) accompanied by precious seasonal asparagus. The pasta is the deep coral of tomatoes (or lobster shells, the more likely coloring agent), cooked al dente but not chewy. The pockets are well filled with lobster meat mixed with cream — you can actually taste the lobster for a change! — aswim in a light coral cream sauce with a distinct shellfish undertone (that rich lobster broth again), topped with a sprinkling of cooked fresh herbs. Maybe it’s not actually better than sex, but I’d have to try both within an hour and compare them to decide.
Vitello alla Romana is a layered version of the classic saltimbocca alla Romana (veal scallops with prosciutto, sage, and cheese). I actually find Antica’s rendition (similar to a memorable version from my favorite place on Mulberry and Grand in Manhattan) superior to saltimbocca. The latter has small pieces of the ingredients wrapped together and can be overly salty and dry if the balance isn’t perfect. Here, instead, the veal scallops are laid flat and topped by the prosciutto and swoony melted fontina in a winey sauce. The veal is white but doesn’t taste like baby formula. And it’s only one element of a harmonic trio of ingredients singing lead, with the sauce as the backup chorus. It comes with creamy mashed potatoes and long slices of zucchini and carrots, cooked semi-crisp. The same vegetables came with the evening’s special entrée of local sea bass, correctly cooked tender (not dry) and brightly sauced with tomatoes, capers, and white wine.
I’d have loved to try one of the dishes with Italian sausages — the Health Department won’t let the restaurant make its own, but the chef buys from the best local source, Pete’s Meats.
We were way too full for dessert — but since Lynne’s a regular by now, we all received espresso cups of — can I go Chaucerian on you for just a coupla secs, please, please? — “swich licor of which vertu engendred is the flor” — that is, such sweet liquid (flavors of licorice, vanilla, mocha) that made us happy (if no more virtuous or flowery than usual). Don’t know what it was, but sipping it was a privilege. Maybe it was some sort of enchantment potion — let’s just call it “bella Italia.” If so, I’m glad to fall under its spell.
Note: The chef and his wife are going to Italy for two and a half weeks on March 19. So if you don’t want to trust the kitchen — you probably can, you know — go there before or after. In any event, please reserve, or you’ll be waiting out in the rain for an hour! (And even if it’s not raining, it’s still an hour.)
Francesco Basile comes from a small town near Palermo, Sicily. His voice is deep and warm, with a heavy accent, his manner is charming and witty, and his shape betrays a certain enjoyment of good food — not a bad thing in a chef. I asked how he started in the cooking business. “I went to a culinary school in Palermo,” he said, “but they just teach you the basics. Then it’s up to you, you start determining your own future. You learn from chefs, and then there’s the creativity. Because I love what I do. I cook from my heart. I love the flavors.
“I worked seasonally — in summers I worked in the beach areas, and in winter I worked in the ski resorts up north. And when I was 23 years old, I came to the States. My first stop was Huntington Beach, California. I worked in a place called Mangia, Mangia, where the owner was from my home town. It was a mamma ’n’ papa style of cooking, like spaghetti and meatballs. But I don’t want to bad-mouth them because I got my green card [immigration visa] from them. I worked a couple of other places in Orange County — more spaghetti and meatballs.
“And then I came to San Diego. Panevino offered me a job there. [Note: That was at Osteria Panevino’s height, when it gained a reputation for excellence.] Then my cousin in Bonita offered me a job at Buon Giorno, and finally I opened my place here seven years ago — they’ve been seven beautiful years. Yes, I’m a happy man, I have a beautiful wife, Marta, who runs the front of the house at the restaurant. I have a beautiful little daughter. And now I have Naomi Wise interviewing me.” (Didn’t I say he was a charmer? Don’t worry, the review was already written.)
I asked him about the philosophy behind his cooking and his restaurant. “I believe in simplicity,” he said. “With just garlic, good tomatoes, good oil, you can cook wonderful food. As long as we have good ingredients, we can do anything — but simplicity is my motto. And when the people come to my house, my restaurant, I want them to feel like they’re coming home. I want them to feel like friends and not just customers. So long as they respect me and they respect my employees, they get all the respect from us. We treat everybody equally, whether they come for a salad with a glass of wine or a filet mignon and a bottle of Brunello. It’s all the same for me. I want people to feel welcome when they come to my house.”
5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa, 619-463-9919, anticatrattoria.com.
Lunch Tuesday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; dinner nightly, 4:30–9:30 p.m., until 10:00 p.m. Saturday–Sunday.
Appetizers, $8–$13; soups and salads, $6–$8; pasta and risotti, $12–$18; vegetable sides, $6; entrées, $16–$28 (for Choice-grade filet mignon or New Zealand rack of lamb; most dishes under $21). Lunch slightly lower.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES:
Indulgent multi-regional Italian cuisine made from scratch with fine ingredients. Solid Italian-Californian wine list of about 50 bottles at reasonable markups, ten choices by the glass.
Take your pick, but consider frittura mixta, bocconcini with prosciutto, crab-stuffed portobello (frequent special), lobster ravioli, penne Mazzini, vitello alla Romana.
NEED TO KNOW:
Reserve for dinner, especially on weekends, or you’ll be sorry. Patio seating in good weather. Sound level lively, not painful. Five lacto-vegetarian pastas and risotti including one vegan, one vegan-adaptable.