1917 India Street, Little Italy
Po Pazzo What would make someone open another restaurant when he's already got three of them -- including two just down the street? In the case of Joe Busalacchi, owner of Po Pazzo on India Street in Little Italy, it was public demand. "Everybody that lives around the area kept telling me, 'We need a nicer place to go to, a little higher end,' " says Joe, who also owns Busalacchi's Ristorante on Fifth Avenue and Trattoria Fantastica and Cafe Zucchero on India one block south of Po Pazzo.
The restaurant's name means "a little crazy," but opening the place was obviously a shrewd move. During both my visits, the house was packed from 6:30 p.m. until near closing time. A flyer outside announces, "Here, eating out is an experience: part entertainment, part theater, and mostly fun." In fact, the building used to be a theater called the Avalon. "When I was rummaging around upstairs," Busalacchi recalls, "I found a century-old lobby card saying, 'Admission 5 cents, Free Popcorn.' " From its theatrical origins, the room derives its open-rafter ceilings, with hanging halogen lights (set on "dim"). The decor resembles the set of a Manhattan supper club in a black-and-white movie, right down to the graytone color scheme and curvy booths set along two walls. Glasses tilt like the Tower of Pisa, and the silverware is wavy -- comfortable in the hand but "un po pazzo."
On weekends, a piano trio plays in the bar area, classic pop and show tunes of the '40s and '50s. A hundred-odd mouths talking over the music creates a din. "Were supper clubs this noisy in Sinatra's heyday?" I wondered during one visit. A shriek cut through the music: "Oh my gahhd, OHH my GAHHHD!" No, I don't think Lauren Bacall ever made that particular sound.
Dinner begins with sliced baguettes coated with coarse salt and bi-color sesame seeds, baked by Joe Busalacchi's brother Frank at Cafe Zucchero. They come with butter and a ramekin of chopped tomatoes seasoned with fresh garlic, which turn the bread into bruschetta. Get used to the garlic. You will meet it again. And again.
The showiest appetizer here is the chilled seafood platter ($35 for two). Don't fall for it. The seafood is cooked and chilled early in the day. Shells gaping, the mussels and clams lose their juices, while the shrimps develop a dusty taste. The smoked hamachi, crab legs, and small lobster tail are an improvement, but the price for this dish is steep and the pleasures are few.
A better choice is the grilled artichoke. A huge purple-green thistle is boiled tender, then rubbed with olive oil, grilled, and finished off with a splash of balsamic reduction. Halving the flower lets these tangy-sweet and smoky flavors penetrate to the heart. The accompaniment is a ramekin of aioli that's short on garlic, tasting more like a hand-crafted, eggy mayonnaise.
Our party loved an Indian summer salad of cucumbers, fresh corn kernels, and organic tomatoes, blessed by a silky blue cheese. A Caesar salad was (as is usual in San Diego) an adventure, but its spirit was true. Three long spears of romaine, stripped to the crisp, pale hearts, were scattered with Parmesan and decorated with an anchovy and a crouton, in a dressing that, if not classic, was as tasty as the original.
Lobster bisque was ravishing but so rich with reduced cream that four of us dared not finish one bowl between us, lest it fill us up. In a grilled quail appetizer, the bird-quarters proved dry in the breast and greasy in the legs, but the poultry serves as an excuse for a salad of soft, raw baby spinach in a sweet fig dressing with candied walnuts and bacon bits. Dungeness crab cakes had little filler to mar them but were overcooked. Calamari were fried in a very crisp batter, but with a scary degree of saltiness.
"Sicilians use a lot of salt because it's cheap there," said my friend Provvi, who is (naturally) Sicilian. "They make salt in evaporation ponds at the edge of the ocean. It's moist and sticky, and they keep it in a special sealed jar so it won't dry out. It's fine-milled salt, not coarse, and they put rice grains in with it to keep it loose enough to shake."
"And so when Sicilian cooks, like the ones in the kitchen here, come FOB to America," added Provvi's chic mother, Maria, "if they use regular American salt in the quantity they're used to, the food comes out much too salty. Our salt has more flavor but less saltiness." A little Internet research revealed the chemical facts: Sicilian sea salt has a much lower percentage of sodium chloride (salt), the rest being trace minerals, while American table salt is nearly all sodium chloride. When a Sicilian chef cooks with Morton's or Diamond, he's liable to overdo it.
In Po Pazzo's steakhouse guise, the "Meat" section of the menu offers USDA Prime steak in several cuts, plus lamb and veal chops. These are flash-roasted in a special oven at 1700 degrees, like the meats at Ruth's Chris. If you're willing to venture onto less familiar ground, Joe Busalacchi's innovation is "Sicilian steak," a bone-in rib eye coated with seasoned bread crumbs and cheese. The coating blackens in the oven and lends the steak a crust and a wider range of flavors than unadorned meat. I found the beef flavorful, if a bit chewy. It arrived in the company of garlic mash, candied yams, and sautéed mushrooms. You can order reasonably priced à la carte side dishes ranging from creamed spinach to shoestring potatoes gussied up with Parmesan and truffle oil.
But Po Pazzo is a swanky Italian restaurant at heart, and the menu offers several "comfort food" meats cooked in standard Italian-restaurant style. At various meals we tried osso buco, roast chicken, and formula-fed veal scaloppini (with more fresh sage than it needed). No surprises there. Entrées are garnished with a changing array of seasonal starches and baby produce. This is one restaurant where you'll be glad to eat your veggies.