5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa
Attention, all New York expats and other lovers of indulgent, exuberant Italian food: That terrific “secret” Mulberry Street restaurant you loved and still miss has been found again — in a La Mesa strip mall. There, a Sicilian-born chef-owner (just like those in Manhattan’s best trattorias and osterias) turns out a multiregional menu of full-flavored food that gladdens the heart with a warmth and joy you can taste in every bite.
Even in Manhattan’s Little Italy, Antica would easily be a top local restaurant — at least it would be when I lived there, back in the Eocene when Mario Batali was in knee pants. Whatever sent the Lynnester venturing out from Hillcrest to the mysterious East, once again she served as the one-woman scouting party for our eating posse. When her glowing word reached my ear, off we went, with her mom Mary Anne and Ben-the-stew. I’d just eaten at Alexander’s in North Park and was grateful to have my expectations recalibrated before going into print on that one. Yes, Alexander’s is good “neighborhood food,” but Antica is so much more — ambitious, imaginative, wildly generous.
I hear that some people think I don’t like Italian food. Au contraire, I love it too well to readily accept the debased versions served in our own Little Italy and the Gaslamp — where high rents and the “one-night stands” of the convention and tourist trades encourage short-staffing, shortcut cooking with ready-made products, and cheap ingredients. I do like Osteria Pescatore in Del Mar, Firenze and Via Italia in Encinitas, Vivace in Carlsbad, Piatti in La Jolla, Primavera in Coronado, and even Del Medici in the Gaslamp. They all have integrity — but what I feel is liking, and not quite love. What’s missing? That quality that the old TV ads (for some nasty frozen thing, no?) used to call abbondanza — abundance. By which, I don’t mean a big meal, but that lyrical Italian sense of the fullness of life, somehow speaking through the food. And also warmth and hominess, a way of making you feel welcome without requiring that you dude up in your best clothes to go eat pasta. In San Diego, when you manage to find the hominess, it’s usually at some spaghetti-and-meatball joint where the food is dismal.
Antica, at last, really does it for me. This is Italian food — absolute feel-good food — and once you taste it, nothing less will do.
The room’s decor hints at a rustic farmhouse but more saliently evokes an Italian restaurant; that is, it has classic sienna-and-white walls picturing drawings of Italian scenery, and thin, neutral carpeting underfoot to keep down the racket. We ate there on a crowded Friday, when a large wedding rehearsal party was upping the noise and upsetting the routine, and still, both the kitchen and the servers performed adroitly with very few glitches. Even the party noise blew by us once we plunged into the food.
Francisco Basile, the Sicilian-born chef, has cooked at the seaside resorts and the mountain ski towns of Italy, and he knows how to make a dinner taste like a luxury vacation. Contrary to some early “reviews” (e.g., those written by the ad manager of the Union-Tribune), the menu is not Tuscan (with that area’s austere purity) but covers the whole multifaceted boot of Italy, from chic Milan down to rugged Sicily — but if I can judge from the similar cuisine of New York’s Little Italy, the coast near Naples probably has a special spot in the chef’s heart.
Lynne and Ben’s favorite appetizer here is the frittura mixta of barely battered, airy calamari rings and tentacles, shrimp, and artichoke hearts. The dip, happily, is a light garlic-cream sauce rather than the standard pedestrian marinara that overwhelms the delicacy of the other flavors. (Those who ask for marinara can get it.) It is all good — and it stays good, the kitty-bag contents still crisp and light at home the next day.
The most spectacular appetizer we tried was a frequent special, a portobello mushroom lushly stuffed with moist crabmeat, topped with a thin layer of Parmesan and bread crumbs for a touch of crispness, plated over steamed baby spinach, and finished with a touch of buttery lobster stock. I dare not describe the sheer sensuality of the dish in a free paper, as it would edge on porn that kiddies might read. (Contrast and compare to Alexander’s, last week, where button mushrooms had a dryish crab stuffing masked by overbaked, rubbery provolone. Sorry, North Park, but La Mesa has the better deal — at better prices, too.)
Bocconcini (fresh mozzarella) with silky-salty imported San Daniele prosciutto is equally lavish. This is not the standard Gaslamp shortcut of throwing some cheeseballs and fancy ham on a plate with a few snips of raw greenery, but a layered baked delight atop more baby spinach, making a full and rounded array of complementary flavors.
The only disappointing appetizer paired mussels and clams in white wine sauce. The sauce was fine, but on that terribly busy night, the shellfish were a little overcooked. On the other hand, the Italian bread we were dipping into the sauce was freshly house-baked, as always, and still exuding the heady aromas of yeast and wheat.
Let’s digress for a moment to consider wine. White or a red? Whoops — the list includes my favorite Italian white, the rich and full-bodied Lacryma Christi de Vesuvio (from Campagna, the Naples area, near the ancient city of Pompeii). This is the quaff for disdainers of dishwater Pinot Grigios and Soaves, drinkers who want some sunshine in their mouths and plump “legs” running down the glass. For a red, we went with a good mellow Montepulciano, Ben’s fave (and I like it too).
Pastas are too good here to choose just one to share as a mid-course. Instead, we selected two pastas and two entrées for our main dishes. Penne Mazzini is Lynne’s pet pick, with artichoke hearts and that fine prosciutto in cream sauce. It’s a lively, luxurious combination of pleasantly bitter and salty flavors smoothed by the lush fat of the cream. It’s simple but never palls — the assertive flavors keep your mind and mouth involved in every forkful.