This restaurant is closed.
North Park has long been home to artists, writers, and bohemians of all sorts. Now the neighborhood is officially enjoying an "urban renaissance," as civic boosters call it, spotlighting the art galleries on Ray Street, the weekly farmer's market on North Park Way, and the renovation of the derelict North Park Theater (new home to the San Diego Men's Chorus and Lyric Opera San Diego). And wherever bohemians settle, restaurants and realtors are sure to follow. A gigantic luxury-condo project going up a few steps north of University on 30th is ironically named "La Boheme." (You have to wonder, did the developers include some unheated top-floor art studios as their affordable units? My tiny hand is frozen!)
Across the street from the future Bohemian condorama is the classic signifier of gentrification, a new wine bar -- this being North Park, it's a wine bar with enough differences to break several molds at once. Apertivo calls itself an "Italian Tapas and Wine Bar," unlike all the non-Italian wine bars springing up in Hillcrest. More distinctively, its prices are low enough that even starving artists can eat and drink here. A basic, tasty meal comes to about $10, including beverage, and a light-hearted feast is under $20 per person. Better yet, if you're curious about Italian wines, this is a perfect place to start exploring. They have a few high-end bottlings if you want to get serious, and a great many affordable ones to enjoy casually, the way Italians do.
"Italian tapas?" you may well ask. Well, not really. In the city of Venice, there is such a thing -- but Apertivo doesn't do Venetian cuisine. Nor are the plates tiny, as they are in Spanish tapas bars. Here, dishes are heaped rim-to-rim on medium plates -- the size used for salads in upscale restaurants. These are portioned for moderate eaters, about as much as you'd serve at home (unless you're devoted to Hungry Man). The plates can easily be shared among three or four grazers; for solos, a couple of veggie selections and a protein or pasta could be dinner.
The menu has a genuinely Italian spirit of ease and simplicity. It offers unfussy, homey dishes from no particular province, lightened up and cooked quickly but carefully to order. Seasonal vegetable choices are abundant, ranging from assorted olives to a plateful of grilled mixed veggies. The more substantial dishes stress shellfish, poultry, eggplant, cheese, and pasta, with the merest gesture toward mammal-meat. A modest selection of desserts always includes a special that's based on the ripest fruit of the moment.
A two-sided chalkboard beckons from the sidewalk. One face boasts about the wine list; the other lists the day's specials. Make note of these before you enter. The dining room is long and high-ceilinged, with track lights, industrial carpet, and poster-sized Deco advertising reproductions. Captain's chairs sit at four-person tables topped with black Formica. The ambient Italian music alternates between grand opera and "Funiculi, Funicula" ditties, but you may not hear them clearly. Like so many new neighborhood bistros, Apertivo's architecture creates a "wall of sound," thundering with yelled and echoed conversations. This is why you should look at the specials board before entering: You may not hear the server describing them. The owners are working on the problem (those odd rectangles nailed randomly on the ceiling are acoustical tiles), but until they get serious and install a dropped acoustical ceiling, you'll have to converse in shouts and add to the din.
The secret to eating well here is to remember that bohemians are independent spirits who like to do things their own way. Apertivo's chef-owner deliberately undersalts the dishes so that diners can season to taste, and no server carries a yard-long pepper grinder or crystal bowl of grated cheese, panting to amend your food before you've even tasted it. The condiments (salt and pepper grinders, Parmesan, etc.) are on the table, and you're meant to use them. This is the opposite of the chef-is-boss approach. Once my partner and I realized that you're not just "allowed" but expected to interact with your food, our appreciation for the food increased.
At the end of the room, two chalkboards hang behind the wine bar, the left listing special bottles, the right announcing the current wine flight (typically four half-pours for $8). One evening, I ordered the white flight, featuring four wines from different regions of Italy, each made from a different grape. Tasting them against our dishes proved entertaining. Salads, for instance, generally fight with wines. Our insalata caprese was supersized, a whole tomato sliced into five pieces, each topped with a slab of fresh mozzarella as thick as a poached egg. The top was sprinkled with chopped fresh basil and a superb extra-virgin olive oil from Italy (Piancone brand). The cheese was very mild, the basil muscular. (The tomato, alas, could have been riper, given that this is their season.) After a sip of each glass, I found that the simple, vibrant Soave best held its own against the acidity of the tomato.
Sautéed tiger shrimp were as sweet as farm-fresh corn, wrapped in thin-sliced prosciutto, skewered on toothpicks, and perched over a pool of wonderful olive oil. These flavors went swimmingly with my favorite wine of the flight, an Insolia bottled by Cusumano -- a deep-golden Sicilian Chardonnay that changed flavors from sip to swallow like a serious red, leaving a delicious aftertaste.
Our waitress said, "Good choice!" when we ordered the cremini (brown button mushrooms) sautéed with sherry. She failed to mention that the portion came sized for a family Thanksgiving. I did miss the garlic overdose found in the Spanish version of this tapa. The wine that suited the dish was a Pinot Grigio -- but not one of those dishwater potions that give the grape a bad name. The bumptious, chewy Villanova, with boozy fruit up front and an almost meaty aftertaste, proved perfect with mushrooms. (The fourth wine of the tasting, a pale wraith called Cortese, was mainly useful as an alternative to water.)