Perfect night for sitting out. If you have a heater. And that makes it a perfect night to be in El Cajon.
Because, by my reckoning, the City of the Valley has the best sidewalk restaurants in this county, bar none. And that’s because the city fathers here made space for cafés. They didn’t make the cafés fit into their spaces.
Compare this with Little Italy, where the city allowed developers to build out to nearly the edge of India Street, so there’s only cramped space to walk and no space for nice, broad terrazzas. Just so developers can claim more square footage inside.
In a city with our weather? This should be a capital crime.
El Cajon, on the other hand — you can play on their Main Street. Concerts every week in summer, car shows, and places such as Por Favor and Downtown Cafe that can sprawl all over a big, wide sidewalk, like this was the Champs Élysées itself.
I’m thinking this this evening as I hike up past these eateries. I almost stop for something at Mezzah, right by Prescott Promenade Park, but they’re closing. It’s about 8:00.
Then I catch a glimpse of a kinda cozy sidewalk café just beyond the park entrance. Oh, yeah. Italian?
“Nicolosi’s Italian Restaurant,” it reads. “Family-owned since 1952.”
That’s funny. Didn’t it used to be Mangia Bene?
Now I’ve got to go in. Especially seeing they still look open. People are scattered about the big terrace under awnings and strings of lights. Andrea Bocelli is singing “Volare.” Big fountain just inside the door has two trumpeting angels sending streams of water into a lion’s head.
Inside, the tables have that polished mahogany look. At the back, in a room that’s crowded with a family birthday party, a big mural shows a Nicolosi’s trattoria as it would look in Venice, Italy, right beside a canal.
So, this gal Ady sets me down at a table and hands me a menu. Hmm... Appetizers such as soups, “Sicilian Starters” (a combo of provolone, pepperoni, and pepperoncini), or a “pizzarino” with pepperoni, mozzarella, and sauce on Italian bread, all go at the great price of $4 each.
But pastas are around $12. And it’s, like, $16.50 for a full order of spaghetti with pesto sauce; although you can get a half-order for $13.50. And mains? “Nicolosi’s specialties” are up there. Chicken masala (with ’shrooms, Italian red potatoes, and spaghetti) comes to $18. Fettucine Alfredo with chicken is $18; with shrimp it’s $22.
So, we’re not talking cheap here. But under “Hot Sandwiches” they have a better deal: house-made meatballs and marinara, $7.50 for half, $9.50 for a whole.
And right next to that is the antipasto salad. It’s got plenty of non-salad items in there, too, including “assorted fine Italian meats, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, pepperoncini, olives, and optional anchovies.” Ooh. Anchovies. Love the salty little devils Except, it’s $13.50; $11.50 for a small.
But before I can stop myself, I’ve ordered the small one, and also a half meatballs-and-marinara sandwich. To go. Something for poor, starving Carla. I know she loves Italian. Man, I’d love to have a li’l glass of vino, too. But tonight gonna be working late. So, I ask for a coffee ($2.75) instead, and a glass of water.
The antipasto salad is not just delicious with the chunks of mozzarella, but they have three kinds of meat hidden below the lettuce leaves: a capicolla spiced ham, a Genoa “hard imported” salami, and pepperoni.
I have to ask for bread, but when Ady brings it, it’s free. Baguette. Uh, a little soft. Is that Italian? Not that crispy crunch of, say, a Bread and Cie loaf.
But, quibbling here. Whole thing is delish. Love the garbanzo beans, the dressing’s good and tangy-sweet, and — oh, daggone it — I forgot to ask for the anchovies.
So, this place has been here over 60 years, since 1952? Ady says that a Nicolosi’s has been in the family for all that time. Salvatore “Sam” Nicolosi came to Massachusetts from Nicolosi, Sicily, in 1906. Forty-six years later he came west and opened a restaurant in Mission Hills. Many restaurants and three generations later, they expanded to this location. That was just six months ago, when they took over from Mangia Bene.
“We’re busy,” Ady says. “Especially in the summer, on the Wednesday vintage-car nights and Fridays when they have concerts in the park here.”
Even though the prices are sometimes up there, I like this place. It’s got a bustly warmth about it.
As I leave, they’re playing “Take My Hand, I’m a Stranger in Paradise.”
Back at the ranch, Carla unwraps the meatball sandwich, shoves it in the microwave, pulls it out, and slices it in half. Oh, man, it’s oozing marinara sauce everywhere.
“What did Italians do before Mexico gave them the tomato?” I ask. She can’t speak for a moment. Mouth’s so full.
“These meatballs are huge,” she mumbles. “Uh, the tomato? Oh, yeah. Our gift to the world. Don’t know. Have to admit, they sure made good use of it.”
“Next time,” I say, “we’ll do this there, on their sidewalk terrace. You’ll feel like you’re in Rome, you won’t wanna leave. I guarantee it.”
“Long as they’ve got those heaters out there,” she says.
She has a point there.
- The Place: Nicolosi’s Italian Restaurant, 221 East Main, El Cajon, 619-444-0303 (also at 7005 Navajo Road, 619-461-5757)
- Prices: Sicilian Starters (provolone, pepperoni, and pepperoncini), $4; soups, $4; or a “pizzarino” (pepperoni, mozzarella, sauce on Italian bread), $4; meatballs and marinara hot sandwich, $9.50 whole, $7.50 half; antipasto salad (3 Italian meats, mozzarella cheese, anchovies), $13.50 (large), $11.50 (small); spaghetti with pesto sauce, 16.50 (full order), $13.50 (half-order); chicken marsala (with mushrooms, Italian red potatoes, spaghetti), $18. Fettucine Alfredo with chicken, $18, with shrimp, $22
- Hours: 11:00 a.m.–8:30 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Friday, Saturday
- Buses: 815, 816, 871, 872, 888, 894
- Nearest bus stops: East Main and Avocado
- Trolley: Orange Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: El Cajon Transit Center, 352 South Marshall Avenue, El Cajon