Mercy Baron 7:30 p.m., May 27
Located on El Cajon boulevard at the edge of North Park, the Italian tapas restaurant used to be more centrally located but has moved out to the edge of the neighborhood, almost into University Heights. The particular block isn't the loveliest. The neighbors include a gas station and a bogus karoake bar, but the Georgian restaurant next door has a good reputation. At the very least, parking is easy.
The big, wide-open dining room is a little imposing at first, but the truly excellent chairs are good for sitting in and when a few more diners show up for dinner it feels a lot less cavernous. Being the only party in the place at the start of service, however, was a touch lonely.
The food is billed as Italian tapas, that is to say small, shareable plates of Italian food. The menu is rather enormous and prices are very low. Items start at $2 and seldom climb over $10. In keeping with that strategy, the wine list has plenty of affordable glasses and bottles. Selected wine and sangria is available for $3/glass during the very long, 2-6pm happy hour every day. The happy hour glasses of Cabernet and chardonnay were both perfectly serviceable; not earth-shattering, but miles from paint thinner.
To start, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto had been overcooked. A grilled vegetable medley of squash and carrots, on the other hand, had been gently seasoned and cooked to ideal tenderness.
A pasta course featured the biggest success of the night: capellini with a Greek cheese called mizithra and brown butter that had an absolutely alluring flavor. The rich bass notes of the butter and the salty, crumbly cheese were in perfect concert with each other. Less appealing, linguine alla puttanesca lacked sufficient fire and had a fishy taste that implied the anchovies were cheap or old, perhaps both. The pasta dishes were very generous. A modest eater could suffice on one. In both cases, the noodles had been taken past the point of al dente, but not to disastrous lengths.
The meat course consisted of a cod special and a roast pork loin. The cod had a soggy batter coating, but the tomato and olive compote that had been spread generously over the fish was exquisitely piquant and could have been a dish on its own. Much like some of the other dishes, the pork had been cooked with too much zeal. The orange sauce that had been freely ladled over the meat was refreshingly unfamiliar and would have taken a properly cooked chop to great heights.
Most of the dishes at Apertivo were moving in the right direction but ultimately suffered a clumsiness or inelegance in preparation. With more attention to detail — i.e. technical mastery of meat and pasta cookery — at the same price point, the restaurant would be a jewel. As it is, it's fun but not outstanding and its saving grace is that $30 per person will net a veritable feast of food and wine.
2322 El Cajon Boulevard
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