5263 Baltimore Drive, La Mesa
(No longer in business.)
“I tell you, man, they were dancing.”
“Dancing in a pizza place? Yeah, right. The pizzicato waltz?”
Hank swears he saw it, last night, through the window in the eatery behind the Shell gas station where he was filling up. An Italian spot.
“Those bodies, they were swaying.”
Hank swings the Camry onto Fletcher Parkway. “That’s it. We’re going. If I’m right, you get up and dance, OK? Let’s see you get smartass on the dance floor.”
No problema. Bet he just mistook some big screen for real life. So we drive into this standard-issue strip mall. Italian place sits in the middle. I see they have an outside area. Looks like a coffee/wine/bar hangout as well as a restaurant.
We get inside, and oops, it does have a parquet dance floor right in the front, surrounded by tables and booths. A knobby-kneed old black Victorian table is the welcome desk. The walls have panels of snazzy red fabric and yellow wallpaper, and I see gold and red drapes hanging across the wine-red ceiling at the back, making a kind of tented pavilion. Every nook and cranny seems to hold little collections of bottles, glassware, cherubim, leather chests, red fabric lights. Cool. But, über cool.
“Too swank, Hank,” I say.
“You’ll get fed, Ed. Trust me.”
Lively lady named Linda puts her head around some baubles. “Hi! Where would you like to sit?”
“That booth right by the dance floor,” says Hank.
Linda leaves us with menus, and oh, man. The only items under ten bucks are antipasti, like Pizzetta Rustica, a mini-pizza with black-olive pâté and Gorgonzola cheese ($7.95); soups (the zuppa del sole — clam soup — $7.95); or salads, like the Meneghino, with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers ($7.95). The pastas and risotti sections are up there, $11 to $17 buckeroos.
Other dishes, like Penne Ciao Bella, which is salmon, shrimp, and spinach in a light creamy sauce, served with garlic cheese bread, would really hit the spot. Or, Lord, cartoccio, spaghetti with mushrooms, shrimp, clams, and salmon baked together in a garlic white sauce, plus garlic cheese bread. But…they’re $16 and $17.
Of course, at lunchtime, we could have had lots of hot pannios or ciabatta for $7, $8. The portobello pannio with mushrooms and pâté runs $7.25. An Italian Salami Classic ciabatta with salad is $6.95.
But not now — it’s dark.
“Dude,” I hiss, “there is no way we can afford this…you just blew it. Bi-ig time.”
“Jeez! Turn the page. Back page.”
I turn to the back page. Pizza, $10 to $17 each.
“So we get a pizza. One pizza, dude. Share. Maybe seven bucks each. Sixteen-inch pie, what’s wrong with that?”
Hmm. See his point. But which one? Hank, natch, goes for the veggie types, like the “Venezia,” with tomato sauce, cheese, and grilled veggies ($11.95 for the 12-inch, $13.95 for the 16-inch); or the “Viareggio” with tomato sauce, cheese, sautéed spinach, and a creamy Gorgonzola sauce ($11.95, $13.95); or the San Remo, tomato sauce, cheese, asparagus, and sunny-side-up egg ($13.95, $15.95).
Me, I want meat, the Palermo calzone stuffed with cheese, sausage, pepperoni, and mushrooms ($12.95, $14.95); or the Geneva pizza with pesto sauce, cheese, sautéed sausage, onions, zucchini, and parmigiano sauce ($13.95, $15.95).
“Uh, we’ll take the Venezia pizza,” Hank says, the moment Linda turns up.
“Dude,” I say. “This is a democracy, right? I’m thinking the Geneva pizza. Got a problem with that?”
“We can make it with one flavor on each side,” Linda says. Great! Saved us from a dust-up. Plus now we may have just enough do-re-mi left for a salad. So we go for a Colombina salad up front. It has a luscious combo of spinach, walnuts, and pears, with a dollop of creamy Gorgonzola sauce, and a Ciao Bella dressing for $7.95.
When it comes, that Columbina’s so delicious I almost don’t feel the need for pizza. Plus we get distracted by this glam-looking gal who comes in, sets up with a seven-string guitar, and starts playing Beatle classics. “Come Together.” “Golden Slumbers.” “Yesterday.” Victoria Rose is her name. Turns out she’s English. She wears long black gloves with the fingertips cut out. Used to be a lute player.
Linda brings our pizza. My side tastes nicely herby, sausagey. Hank’s is tomatoey, with bits of broccoli and other veggies.
“So, you really have dancing?” I ask Linda.
“Absolutely,” she says. “Pretty much every night. We just provide the floor. Tonight a West Coast swing group’s coming in. Other nights it’s Lindy Hoppers, Argentinean tango, cha-cha, rumba, you name it. It’s all on our website, ciaobellaetango.com.”
“And anyone can dance?”
“Oh yes. That’s the fun. La Mesa folks usually eat between 6:00–8:00, but the Argentinean tango masters come late and expect to eat late. So we have to keep the chef late. It’s quite a scene.” Linda says she and her business partner Daniel are both passionate tango dancers, so it gets to be kinda work-play.
“What time do you start tonight?” Hank asks.
“Around 8:30, pretty soon,” Linda says. “Are you sticking around?”
“Oh sure,” says Hank. “My friend here is desperate to dance. Right, Ed?”
The Place: Ciao Bella Caffe Bar e Ristorante, 5263 Baltimore Drive, La Mesa, 619-337-0238
Type of Food: Italian
Prices: lunchtime portobello pannio (with mushrooms and pâté), $7.25; Italian Salami Classic (ciabatta with salami, prosciutto, salad), $6.95; Pizzetta Rustica, mini-pizza with black olive pâté, Gorgonzola cheese, $7.95; zuppa del sole (clam soup), $7.95; Meneghino salad (cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers), $7.95; spaghetti carbonara (pasta, bacon, egg, garlic, Parmesan, $11.95); Palermo calzone (stuffed with cheese, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms), $12.95 (12-inch), $14.95 (16-inch); Venezia pizza (tomato sauce, cheese, grilled veggies), $11.95 (12-inch), $13.95 (16-inch); San Remo pizza (with tomato sauce, cheese, asparagus, and sunny-side-up egg), $13.95 (12-inch), $15.95 (16-inch); risotto delizioso (risotto with pear, Gorgonzola), $12.95
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m. daily
Buses: 848, 856
Nearest Bus Stop: outside