1602 State Street, San Diego
It's three in the afternoon, way off the beaten path in Little Italy, but even now, this little place is humming. People lining up for gelati, people lining up for panini, people lining up because other people are lining up.
That's me. Being a nat'ral follower of fashion, I jump in line, on principle. It's a sunny, breezy afternoon. We're all standing on Cedar at State, up where dozens of bright, new, and hellishly expensive condos are sprouting. This is a little old building, but it has had a facelift too, with newly painted white-and-orange walls with bits of black. The tables under the jacaranda tree are filled with Beautiful People, from hip gals to oldsters in Panama hats smoking huge ci-gars. And the languages! French, Italian, Spanish, German...is that Russian? Portuguese? Are we near some language school?
Suddenly, the line shuffles and I'm inside. Cool, clean, white and orange again, with black tables, orange chairs, black window frames. I mean, this is just a small corner café, but somehow they've turned it into an airy, ultramodern Euro place. The babble of languages helps. So does the Italian-pop soundtrack. Half the counter's taken up with a display of gelati. Wow. You can see they use actual fruit in it. Then they have a cabinet of croissants and pastries. Three French guys ahead of me, Kevin, Ibrahima, and Ariel, say this is their hang-out while they're here studying international business. "It's the nearest thing to Paris," says Kevin. "They have the best panini. Their prosciutto ham and their mozzarella are so-o Italian. And the gelati. It's like being home in Europe."
I hop aboard one of the tall stools at the stainless-steel counter. Only problem: clunk. No knee room. Vanessa, the Italian girl behind the counter, comes up. I ask for a coffee. She heads for the espresso machine. "Uh, no. Just a coffee," I say. She pours a Danesi coffee. Huh. Italian. In a nice round, thick cup, $1.50. Not bad, except no refills.
"With Italians," explains this other guy behind the counter, Francesco, "you ask for a coffee, they presume you mean espresso."
I check out the orange menu, full of cute come-ons. Like, in the Piatti Freddi section (and no, that doesn't mean "Fred's Patties," the way I thought -- it's "cold plates"), the Saggio's a salad with prosciutto, artichoke, mozzarella cheese, pine nuts, and a "drizzle" of Tuscan olive oil. "This is a wise choice," it says. Maybe, but not a cheap choice at $11.25. La Sera ("the Evening," $10.25) is mixed sliced fresh vegetables, cannellini beans, and prosciutto with -- hey! -- "a specially selected scoop of gelato to perfectly complement your dish." That I gotta try. Except I get led astray as the menu drifts kinda charmingly from English to Italian. Like, Nonno Amadeo (Grandpa Amadeo) is "sliced Italian meat (will depend on the chef's mood), insalata verde, olive nere, arancia. My grandfather's favorite plate, $10.75."
Huh. All very colorful, healthy, and, well, Mediterranean. Somehow, I end up ordering the Rustico ("variety of 'very' Italian meat, goat cheese"), even though it's $12.75. This isn't salad, but four different kinds of charcuterie, cold cuts, surrounding a little mountain of goat cheese, with slices of baguette.
OK. Gelato doesn't come with this dish. But gelato, schmelato. Here's where I go from being wait-and-see snacker to fanatic fan, slave, addict. The goat cheese is guerr-reat, nice and sharp, with a dark vinaigrette over it. The bread's fine, the purple Bresaola cured beef slices taste spicy, lightly olive oily, and -- seems they've air-dried this for months in some Italian valley called Valtellina -- delicate. So is the capicola, the cured pork. But it's the salami and prosciutto that are the showstoppers. The salami's slices are thin, with interesting pepper contrasts and a slightly sweet, tangy thing going. Daggone, it's good. And equal with that is the prosciutto, the Italian dry-cured ham. It's salty but nutty, slightly caramelly, totally wonderful. If that's Italian meats, bring 'em on. Man, I feel like I'm at a wine tasting.
Actually, it would be great to have a little vino with this, but they don't do wine or beer here.
Turns out, Francesco came all the way from Tuscany to create this place.
"When I moved here to San Diego a year and a half ago," he says, "I didn't speak a word of English."
He was a sometime classical and pop pianist who joined with his two brothers in Tuscany to start up a couple of cafés. They were a success. The three brothers, Francesco, Lorenzo, and Giovanni, decided America was ready for them.
"This is a precise copy, down to the orange chairs," Giovanni says, "of our two cafes in the town of Pisa."
"Pisa? Straight up?" I say. Heh heh.
"Absolutely. The menu, the gelati, the attitude."
"Absolutely. We wanted to bring a piece of modern Italy to San Diego. You have lots of places here in Little Italy that evoke the old days, the old architecture, Napoli, Dean Martin. We want to say, 'This is Italy today.'"
Guess he's talking about the chrome-y starkness of the place, the plasma screens mixing the menu with scenes from La Bella Italia, the cool espresso machine.
Francesco says the gelato is the heart of the place. "These gelati are incredibly healthy. Fruit, sugar, water. That's all. We make them up each morning. We use real fruit. Italians eat these gelati for their health, every day. That's why we call our place Pappalecco. It means 'kids' licking food.'" Oh yeah. I suddenly get it. Pappalecco is "lollypop."
Which is why I'm back, a few days later, determined to try that gelato-salad combo. Even though it's only about 2:00, I ask Francesco's brother Lorenzo for the "evening" salad (La Sera, $10.25; "in the moonlight..." says the menu). And yes, when it comes, beautiful. Yellow endive around the edge of the plate, green lettuce, red prosciutto, white cannellini beans, a pink sauce, and, alongside, a bowl of lemon-flavored gelato. The gelato does freshen you up for your next lunge at the beans 'n' prosciutto. Lorenzo says the combo was his idea. "Back in Italy we even do it with raw fish," he says.
Wow. Leave it to the guys from Pisa to introduce a new angle on eatin'.