The seafood (before it's cooked) is nearly as aristocratic as the prime meats. Busalacchi buys it from his childhood friends, the Anthony's/Star of the Sea commissary, which has its fleet bringing in daily catch. The tendency to overcook fish, which we noticed with the crab cakes, becomes more regrettable in the entrées.
A hunk of harpoon-caught local swordfish merits an elaborate presentation. Four fillets are rolled around a garlicky stuffing of Alaskan crab-leg meat and pine nuts, then cooked on a skewer with chunks of onion. These kebabs arrive amidst baby spinach, diced potatoes of several colors (white, yellow, and purple), garnet yam, and a couple of sausage slices. I wished the kitchen had stopped cooking the fish two minutes sooner. A piece of Scottish salmon was grilled dry, almost obliterating its wild-caught flavor. It was plated atop a glutinous risotto with black trumpet mushrooms. My friend Lynne got the first bite, hot out of the kitchen, and looked up. "This risotto tastes like wallpaper paste," she announced. "How do you know? You eat wallpaper paste?" Sam teased her. But as each of us took a taste, nobody could come up with a better comparison.
So forget the flesh. The pasta dishes are where you'll find your thrill at Po Pazzo. Satin-skinned mushroom ravioli (made in-house) filled with puréed porcini and cremini with black pepper were covered with slices of the same mushrooms, bound in a light tomato sauce with fresh rosemary. It's a rare pleasure to find fresh pasta that is just-right-thin in a town where most other restaurants serve it thick and gummy. Cheese tortellini floated in a sauce flavored with the blue cheese we'd enjoyed earlier in the corn salad. Spaghetti with meatballs, short ribs, and Italian sausage arrived al dente in a meat sauce. The sausage is from Pete's Meats (across the street), the meatball is made with ultra-lean ground sirloin with Parmesan binder, and the short rib tastes beefy.
Most desserts are prepared down the block at Cafe Zucchero, but the big production number, made in Po Pazzo's own kitchen, is a cylinder of "frozen tiramisu soufflé," mascarpone cheese ice cream drizzled with chocolate-coffee sauce. I liked the pear tart on a homey crushed-walnut crust, although I didn't care for its topping of sweet vanilla bean gelato, which exuded an aroma closer to bottled imitation vanilla than to the real bean. A creamy crème brûlée was a standard example of its genre.
One dessert seemed more trouble than it was worth: You need a machete to cut through the shells of chocolate-coated cannoli filled with sweetened ricotta. In Sicilian homes, my friends tell me, cannoli are filled just before they're served, rarely any sooner. Here, they're filled in the morning. The hard chocolate glaze serves to keep them from getting soggy during their stay in the fridge, but sometimes, a few are overlooked and spend another day in the cooler. So it was with the cannoli at our first meal, when the shells tasted rancid under the chocolate. At the second dinner, I knew which sweets to order, which to avoid. "Take the tart," I told my companions. "Leave the cannoli."
ABOUT THE CHEF
Sicilian-born Joe Busalacchi came to San Diego at age 9 with his family and learned English at Washington School in Little Italy. He started out as a chef, and many of the recipes used in all the Busalacchi kitchens are his, although each has its own chef now. (David Campbell runs the kitchen at Po Pazzo.) "At 18, I went back to Italy for about a year to study at the Culinary Institute of Palermo," he recalls. "Then I went fishing. I got my first job in the tuna fleet in San Diego, and I worked for about five years as a chef in the tuna industry.
"After that I opened my first place in Grossmont Shopping Center, a fast-food operation in the food court. Then I opened another one there, the Busalacchi Fish Company. When I got bought out, I opened up my first restaurant, Busalacchi's, up on Fifth Avenue. I've been up there about 19 years now.
"About 10 years ago, I opened Trattoria Fantastica in Little Italy," says Joe. "There was nothing nearby then, so I took a gamble when I did something in that neighborhood. When the lease came up next door to Fantastica, I took it and opened Cafe Zucchero as an Italian pastry shop. A cousin who owns one of the largest bakeries in Italy came over and helped us get that started, and then my brother Frank became the baker. He supplies all of our breads, our gelati, most of our desserts. Between the various restaurants, we make almost everything from scratch. Our own bread, our pastries, our gelato products, our own soft pasta, the ravioli -- we have all the pasta machines, [including] a Pasquini machine that comes from Italy."
Busalacchi briefly owned a seafood restaurant at the Pensione, across the street from the Reader headquarters. With only 40 seats, the restaurant ate up more time than its size merited, so he sold it to one of his staff. (It's now called Vincenzo's.) Meanwhile, his wife Lisa and grown sons joined him in managing the growing restaurant mini-empire. Then came a bigger project: "The parcel down the street that became Po Pazzo was an old theater occupied by Buffalo Breath, a costume-rental place. I knew the lady that owned the building, and I was thinking of buying it -- but I didn't. An architect came in and bought the building, moved his office upstairs, and asked me if I'd be interested in opening another restaurant there. I said, 'Okay, I guess another one in Little Italy.' Three restaurants within a block. Everybody thinks I own Little Italy, but I don't.
"I designed most of the place and decorated it. I wanted it to look like a New York atmosphere, with a little bit of music. I decided to do a bit more with the food there -- a little prime beef, a little French, a little Italian, a little Continental. More of a fun kind of club, a little higher-end than what I had down here. And that's it! I'm going to call it quits! I'm getting too old for this. My dream is to do what I'd really like to do -- but San Diego is still a pretty tough town to really show what I could do [in cooking]. But I'm fairly happy now, and people have been pretty happy with what we've done."