1917 India Street, San Diego
Po Pazzo What would make someone open another restaurant when he's already got three of them -- including two just down the street? In the case of Joe Busalacchi, owner of Po Pazzo on India Street in Little Italy, it was public demand. "Everybody that lives around the area kept telling me, 'We need a nicer place to go to, a little higher end,' " says Joe, who also owns Busalacchi's Ristorante on Fifth Avenue and Trattoria Fantastica and Cafe Zucchero on India one block south of Po Pazzo.
The restaurant's name means "a little crazy," but opening the place was obviously a shrewd move. During both my visits, the house was packed from 6:30 p.m. until near closing time. A flyer outside announces, "Here, eating out is an experience: part entertainment, part theater, and mostly fun." In fact, the building used to be a theater called the Avalon. "When I was rummaging around upstairs," Busalacchi recalls, "I found a century-old lobby card saying, 'Admission 5 cents, Free Popcorn.' " From its theatrical origins, the room derives its open-rafter ceilings, with hanging halogen lights (set on "dim"). The decor resembles the set of a Manhattan supper club in a black-and-white movie, right down to the graytone color scheme and curvy booths set along two walls. Glasses tilt like the Tower of Pisa, and the silverware is wavy -- comfortable in the hand but "un po pazzo."
On weekends, a piano trio plays in the bar area, classic pop and show tunes of the '40s and '50s. A hundred-odd mouths talking over the music creates a din. "Were supper clubs this noisy in Sinatra's heyday?" I wondered during one visit. A shriek cut through the music: "Oh my gahhd, OHH my GAHHHD!" No, I don't think Lauren Bacall ever made that particular sound.
Dinner begins with sliced baguettes coated with coarse salt and bi-color sesame seeds, baked by Joe Busalacchi's brother Frank at Cafe Zucchero. They come with butter and a ramekin of chopped tomatoes seasoned with fresh garlic, which turn the bread into bruschetta. Get used to the garlic. You will meet it again. And again.
The showiest appetizer here is the chilled seafood platter ($35 for two). Don't fall for it. The seafood is cooked and chilled early in the day. Shells gaping, the mussels and clams lose their juices, while the shrimps develop a dusty taste. The smoked hamachi, crab legs, and small lobster tail are an improvement, but the price for this dish is steep and the pleasures are few.
A better choice is the grilled artichoke. A huge purple-green thistle is boiled tender, then rubbed with olive oil, grilled, and finished off with a splash of balsamic reduction. Halving the flower lets these tangy-sweet and smoky flavors penetrate to the heart. The accompaniment is a ramekin of aioli that's short on garlic, tasting more like a hand-crafted, eggy mayonnaise.
Our party loved an Indian summer salad of cucumbers, fresh corn kernels, and organic tomatoes, blessed by a silky blue cheese. A Caesar salad was (as is usual in San Diego) an adventure, but its spirit was true. Three long spears of romaine, stripped to the crisp, pale hearts, were scattered with Parmesan and decorated with an anchovy and a crouton, in a dressing that, if not classic, was as tasty as the original.
Lobster bisque was ravishing but so rich with reduced cream that four of us dared not finish one bowl between us, lest it fill us up. In a grilled quail appetizer, the bird-quarters proved dry in the breast and greasy in the legs, but the poultry serves as an excuse for a salad of soft, raw baby spinach in a sweet fig dressing with candied walnuts and bacon bits. Dungeness crab cakes had little filler to mar them but were overcooked. Calamari were fried in a very crisp batter, but with a scary degree of saltiness.
"Sicilians use a lot of salt because it's cheap there," said my friend Provvi, who is (naturally) Sicilian. "They make salt in evaporation ponds at the edge of the ocean. It's moist and sticky, and they keep it in a special sealed jar so it won't dry out. It's fine-milled salt, not coarse, and they put rice grains in with it to keep it loose enough to shake."
"And so when Sicilian cooks, like the ones in the kitchen here, come FOB to America," added Provvi's chic mother, Maria, "if they use regular American salt in the quantity they're used to, the food comes out much too salty. Our salt has more flavor but less saltiness." A little Internet research revealed the chemical facts: Sicilian sea salt has a much lower percentage of sodium chloride (salt), the rest being trace minerals, while American table salt is nearly all sodium chloride. When a Sicilian chef cooks with Morton's or Diamond, he's liable to overdo it.
In Po Pazzo's steakhouse guise, the "Meat" section of the menu offers USDA Prime steak in several cuts, plus lamb and veal chops. These are flash-roasted in a special oven at 1700 degrees, like the meats at Ruth's Chris. If you're willing to venture onto less familiar ground, Joe Busalacchi's innovation is "Sicilian steak," a bone-in rib eye coated with seasoned bread crumbs and cheese. The coating blackens in the oven and lends the steak a crust and a wider range of flavors than unadorned meat. I found the beef flavorful, if a bit chewy. It arrived in the company of garlic mash, candied yams, and sautéed mushrooms. You can order reasonably priced à la carte side dishes ranging from creamed spinach to shoestring potatoes gussied up with Parmesan and truffle oil.
But Po Pazzo is a swanky Italian restaurant at heart, and the menu offers several "comfort food" meats cooked in standard Italian-restaurant style. At various meals we tried osso buco, roast chicken, and formula-fed veal scaloppini (with more fresh sage than it needed). No surprises there. Entrées are garnished with a changing array of seasonal starches and baby produce. This is one restaurant where you'll be glad to eat your veggies.
The seafood (before it's cooked) is nearly as aristocratic as the prime meats. Busalacchi buys it from his childhood friends, the Anthony's/Star of the Sea commissary, which has its fleet bringing in daily catch. The tendency to overcook fish, which we noticed with the crab cakes, becomes more regrettable in the entrées.
A hunk of harpoon-caught local swordfish merits an elaborate presentation. Four fillets are rolled around a garlicky stuffing of Alaskan crab-leg meat and pine nuts, then cooked on a skewer with chunks of onion. These kebabs arrive amidst baby spinach, diced potatoes of several colors (white, yellow, and purple), garnet yam, and a couple of sausage slices. I wished the kitchen had stopped cooking the fish two minutes sooner. A piece of Scottish salmon was grilled dry, almost obliterating its wild-caught flavor. It was plated atop a glutinous risotto with black trumpet mushrooms. My friend Lynne got the first bite, hot out of the kitchen, and looked up. "This risotto tastes like wallpaper paste," she announced. "How do you know? You eat wallpaper paste?" Sam teased her. But as each of us took a taste, nobody could come up with a better comparison.
So forget the flesh. The pasta dishes are where you'll find your thrill at Po Pazzo. Satin-skinned mushroom ravioli (made in-house) filled with puréed porcini and cremini with black pepper were covered with slices of the same mushrooms, bound in a light tomato sauce with fresh rosemary. It's a rare pleasure to find fresh pasta that is just-right-thin in a town where most other restaurants serve it thick and gummy. Cheese tortellini floated in a sauce flavored with the blue cheese we'd enjoyed earlier in the corn salad. Spaghetti with meatballs, short ribs, and Italian sausage arrived al dente in a meat sauce. The sausage is from Pete's Meats (across the street), the meatball is made with ultra-lean ground sirloin with Parmesan binder, and the short rib tastes beefy.
Most desserts are prepared down the block at Cafe Zucchero, but the big production number, made in Po Pazzo's own kitchen, is a cylinder of "frozen tiramisu soufflé," mascarpone cheese ice cream drizzled with chocolate-coffee sauce. I liked the pear tart on a homey crushed-walnut crust, although I didn't care for its topping of sweet vanilla bean gelato, which exuded an aroma closer to bottled imitation vanilla than to the real bean. A creamy crème brûlée was a standard example of its genre.
One dessert seemed more trouble than it was worth: You need a machete to cut through the shells of chocolate-coated cannoli filled with sweetened ricotta. In Sicilian homes, my friends tell me, cannoli are filled just before they're served, rarely any sooner. Here, they're filled in the morning. The hard chocolate glaze serves to keep them from getting soggy during their stay in the fridge, but sometimes, a few are overlooked and spend another day in the cooler. So it was with the cannoli at our first meal, when the shells tasted rancid under the chocolate. At the second dinner, I knew which sweets to order, which to avoid. "Take the tart," I told my companions. "Leave the cannoli."
ABOUT THE CHEF
Sicilian-born Joe Busalacchi came to San Diego at age 9 with his family and learned English at Washington School in Little Italy. He started out as a chef, and many of the recipes used in all the Busalacchi kitchens are his, although each has its own chef now. (David Campbell runs the kitchen at Po Pazzo.) "At 18, I went back to Italy for about a year to study at the Culinary Institute of Palermo," he recalls. "Then I went fishing. I got my first job in the tuna fleet in San Diego, and I worked for about five years as a chef in the tuna industry.
"After that I opened my first place in Grossmont Shopping Center, a fast-food operation in the food court. Then I opened another one there, the Busalacchi Fish Company. When I got bought out, I opened up my first restaurant, Busalacchi's, up on Fifth Avenue. I've been up there about 19 years now.
"About 10 years ago, I opened Trattoria Fantastica in Little Italy," says Joe. "There was nothing nearby then, so I took a gamble when I did something in that neighborhood. When the lease came up next door to Fantastica, I took it and opened Cafe Zucchero as an Italian pastry shop. A cousin who owns one of the largest bakeries in Italy came over and helped us get that started, and then my brother Frank became the baker. He supplies all of our breads, our gelati, most of our desserts. Between the various restaurants, we make almost everything from scratch. Our own bread, our pastries, our gelato products, our own soft pasta, the ravioli -- we have all the pasta machines, [including] a Pasquini machine that comes from Italy."
Busalacchi briefly owned a seafood restaurant at the Pensione, across the street from the Reader headquarters. With only 40 seats, the restaurant ate up more time than its size merited, so he sold it to one of his staff. (It's now called Vincenzo's.) Meanwhile, his wife Lisa and grown sons joined him in managing the growing restaurant mini-empire. Then came a bigger project: "The parcel down the street that became Po Pazzo was an old theater occupied by Buffalo Breath, a costume-rental place. I knew the lady that owned the building, and I was thinking of buying it -- but I didn't. An architect came in and bought the building, moved his office upstairs, and asked me if I'd be interested in opening another restaurant there. I said, 'Okay, I guess another one in Little Italy.' Three restaurants within a block. Everybody thinks I own Little Italy, but I don't.
"I designed most of the place and decorated it. I wanted it to look like a New York atmosphere, with a little bit of music. I decided to do a bit more with the food there -- a little prime beef, a little French, a little Italian, a little Continental. More of a fun kind of club, a little higher-end than what I had down here. And that's it! I'm going to call it quits! I'm getting too old for this. My dream is to do what I'd really like to do -- but San Diego is still a pretty tough town to really show what I could do [in cooking]. But I'm fairly happy now, and people have been pretty happy with what we've done."