2820 Roosevelt Road, NTC Promenade, Liberty Station
The old Naval Training Center at Point Loma is now a perfect new neighborhood, a salmon-colored village with shops, groceries, restaurants, and even an arts center, all within a short walk — something like urban heaven on earth (albeit slightly marred by the periodic roars of aircraft). One of the amenities of the area is a new and very newfangled Italian restaurant, Solare.
Solare is an offshoot of the well-respected Bella Italia in Pacific Beach. The restaurant’s owner, Stefano Ceresoli, is from Milan, and at his P.B. restaurant the fare is classically Milanese. With this new venture, he decided he wanted to do something different, a “green” restaurant with a less traditional menu. His chef, Mark Peliccia, a New York–born world traveler from a restaurant family, owns a home on a vineyard in Liguria, a province on the Mediterranean coast of Northern Italy. Liguria’s regional cuisine is light and bright, emphasizing seafood and vibrant vegetables — closer to Cal cuisine than the familiar heavy red sauces of the south or the austerity of the now-fashionable Tuscan table. At Solare, Peliccia’s cuisine is even more Californian, making liberal use of Asian ingredients for an Italian slant on fusion.
The setting is a large, woodsy room with a glass-shielded open kitchen fronted by a small sushi-style wooden eating counter. The floors are uncarpeted wood, and the unclothed wooden tables bear beautiful placemats of soft, dark brown leather, bordered in woven straw. The high ceiling is crisscrossed with anacondas of exposed metal ductwork. The only element of plush is provided by thick gold-colored satin cushions on the wooden chairs. The result is — you guessed it — a rackety sound level, even though the ambient music is soft. You don’t have to converse in full-out shouts, but you do have to raise your voice to be heard, and so does everybody else. Not a place for serious conversation, romantic or otherwise.
As the hostess showed us to our table, she smiled proudly and said, “All our vegetables are fresh and organic or sustainably raised, and our meats are naturally raised and hormone-free.” Our admirable waiter, Pietro, expanded on the theme: “Our chef makes everything from scratch — for his sauces, he doesn’t use powders, he makes meat and seafood stocks himself.” Pietro knowledgeably guided us through the menu and the wine list, where he apparently had tasted everything. “A lot of dishes on our menu are foods that we eat at home, that you never see in restaurants, even in Italy.” When he learned that we’d be sharing all our food, he wisely proposed staging the meal in four courses instead of the standard three, if we had the time. Of course we did.
Bread (mostly crusty Italian white, some dark) comes with olive oil and balsamic bagna, assembled as usual on the spot. Dave and I caught each other dipping a finger into our saucers to taste the oil. Sorry, it’s light, mild, nothing special. If it’s extra virgin, this was the extra virgin the monster found too bland to bother eating.
We began with sea bream carpaccio dressed with lime citronette (which is a vinaigrette made with lime juice instead of vinegar), garnished with mandarin orange segments and lychees, the latter’s sweetness and louche, sensual texture almost shocking. This dish has a genuine “sashimi” feel, mirroring the Japanese taste for rich fishes served raw. It was shivery good.
Sharing the table were zucchini tagliatelle — not pasta, but wide ribbons of raw zucchini, lightly dressed in oil and lemon juice and accompanied by two huge, seared jumbo shrimp in the shell, head to tail. We’d been offered the customary grind of pepper before tasting and refused, since, well, we hadn’t tasted it yet. “This would be a wonderful dish to eat alfresco for lunch on a summer day,” said David. “But eaten inside, it needs something more.” He was right. “A pinch of salt,” said Marcela, adding one. “Something darker,” said Barb, “maybe paprika.” “White pepper,” offered Dave, “and maybe balsamic.” Maybe a heap of minced fresh basil, I thought, or a frizzle of sautéed garlic. Something.
Slow-roasted pork belly (unsmoked bacon) looked like some ancient mountaintop monument, arriving in the shape of two upright rectangles, plated atop islands of butternut squash purée, next to a surprising scree of chopped mild onions and pears. It took us each two tastes to identify the fruit. The top of each pork block was a crisped thin layer of fat; the rest was all lean, tender meat, resembling an unsmoked, unpulled version of pulled pork.
A “mini chick pea pizza” is a misnomer. It’s not a pizza at all but a thin crêpe the diameter of a standard tortilla, made of faintly grainy chick-pea flour. Resembling a thinner, more delicate Breton crêpe, it’s topped with soft, slick, sautéed calamari rings, snow peas, and a frizzy mass of greenery described as a “spring mint salad.” The combination is likable but elusive — especially if your mouth is set for pizza. (The menu should call it like it is.)
Other appetizer possibilities include several interesting salads: strawberries, arugula, and dry ricotta in one; spinach with crab meat, blue cheese, and blueberry vinaigrette for another; a normal Caprese, along with house-cured salmon, a Middle Eastern “seared beef tartar” with tabbouleh, and an antipasto of Italian cold cuts and cheeses.
The pasta list, mainly house-made, is dominated by unconventional selections. Don’t even think about spaghetti and meatballs. My eye was magnetically drawn to “Ofelle,” obviously one of those home-style dishes you don’t find in restaurants. It consists of near-flat potato dumplings the size of sand dollars, stuffed at the center with house-made “sausage.” The chef later told me that he’s fascinated by the molecular gastronomy practiced by Ferran Adrià in Barcelona and Grant Achatz in Chicago. With the sausage, he seemed to practice some molecular gastronomy of his own: That layer of loose ground meat in the middle was only a few molecules thick, at most 1/8-inch, providing more a texture than a taste. However, the tender disks of potato are lushly bathed in melted butter and sprinkled with a few sautéed fresh sage leaves. It’s so soothing a combination, it makes you feel like a kid eating at Nonna’s house in the Ligurian countryside.