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As we enjoyed our desserts, we spotted one diner at the next table running over to next-door Starbucks and returning with paper cups -- just as we were savoring the excellent house espresso. Mall mentality, I guess.

If you liked Via Italia, you'll still feel at home with the food at Cucina Italiana. Chef Flores has kept much of the menu and cooks in the same style, and I can't believe you'll mourn the lack of headwaiter Maurizio. If you liked Trattoria Nostrana -- well, you're probably on the phone already, setting up your next dinner date.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Chef José Flores comes from a restaurant family in San Luís Potosi in central Mexico. His parents sent him to study cooking at the CCA in San Francisco for two years, expecting him to come back and work at their restaurants. While he was studying and working in Northern California, he decided he preferred Italian food and liked living in the U.S. His sister lived in La Mesa, so he moved to San Diego. "My mom still calls me," he says. "She says, 'Hey, what's going on? I'm waiting for you!' I say, 'Never mind! I'm staying in America and I'm opening my own business.'"

After years of cooking at Trattoria I Trulli in Encinitas and Via Italia at both its locations, he opened his own Trattoria Nostrana at the outer reaches of La Mesa/Fletcher Hills. "But it was too far away from downtown. I wanted to open a place in La Jolla, but the lease was too expensive," he says. "I sold [Nostrana] so I could move to Utah and open a restaurant there with a friend, but then I decided that it was too far away. Then Paolo, the owner of Via Italia, called me and said, 'Why don't you come to help me?' because he didn't have a chef here. I was looking for a place to buy in Poway, but last September he decided to sell the location in Clairemont because he'd moved to Encinitas and it was too long to commute. I told him, 'Then let me have it!' and he sold it to me. I live in Clairemont, five blocks away, so this is like my second home. I'm married with two beautiful daughters, and after the lunch hour, I can pick the girls up from school and drive them home, so we have some time together.

"We changed the name to Cucina Italiana. The menu was already a little shorter than it used to be, and we made a few changes. I put in a few dishes of my own. We're talking with people who used to come to Nostrana and finding out what dishes from there they want me to cook here and what dishes people liked most at Via Italia. I change my desserts every three or four days. I still buy my produce from Bellissima Produce -- I've been working with them for ten years, and they get me everything very fresh. I buy my fish and seafood in small quantities because I want to serve everything fresh, even if it means sometimes I run out of something."

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