2820 Roosevelt Road, NTC Promenade, Liberty Station
The old Naval Training Center at Point Loma is now a perfect new neighborhood, a salmon-colored village with shops, groceries, restaurants, and even an arts center, all within a short walk — something like urban heaven on earth (albeit slightly marred by the periodic roars of aircraft). One of the amenities of the area is a new and very newfangled Italian restaurant, Solare.
Solare is an offshoot of the well-respected Bella Italia in Pacific Beach. The restaurant’s owner, Stefano Ceresoli, is from Milan, and at his P.B. restaurant the fare is classically Milanese. With this new venture, he decided he wanted to do something different, a “green” restaurant with a less traditional menu. His chef, Mark Peliccia, a New York–born world traveler from a restaurant family, owns a home on a vineyard in Liguria, a province on the Mediterranean coast of Northern Italy. Liguria’s regional cuisine is light and bright, emphasizing seafood and vibrant vegetables — closer to Cal cuisine than the familiar heavy red sauces of the south or the austerity of the now-fashionable Tuscan table. At Solare, Peliccia’s cuisine is even more Californian, making liberal use of Asian ingredients for an Italian slant on fusion.
The setting is a large, woodsy room with a glass-shielded open kitchen fronted by a small sushi-style wooden eating counter. The floors are uncarpeted wood, and the unclothed wooden tables bear beautiful placemats of soft, dark brown leather, bordered in woven straw. The high ceiling is crisscrossed with anacondas of exposed metal ductwork. The only element of plush is provided by thick gold-colored satin cushions on the wooden chairs. The result is — you guessed it — a rackety sound level, even though the ambient music is soft. You don’t have to converse in full-out shouts, but you do have to raise your voice to be heard, and so does everybody else. Not a place for serious conversation, romantic or otherwise.
As the hostess showed us to our table, she smiled proudly and said, “All our vegetables are fresh and organic or sustainably raised, and our meats are naturally raised and hormone-free.” Our admirable waiter, Pietro, expanded on the theme: “Our chef makes everything from scratch — for his sauces, he doesn’t use powders, he makes meat and seafood stocks himself.” Pietro knowledgeably guided us through the menu and the wine list, where he apparently had tasted everything. “A lot of dishes on our menu are foods that we eat at home, that you never see in restaurants, even in Italy.” When he learned that we’d be sharing all our food, he wisely proposed staging the meal in four courses instead of the standard three, if we had the time. Of course we did.
Bread (mostly crusty Italian white, some dark) comes with olive oil and balsamic bagna, assembled as usual on the spot. Dave and I caught each other dipping a finger into our saucers to taste the oil. Sorry, it’s light, mild, nothing special. If it’s extra virgin, this was the extra virgin the monster found too bland to bother eating.
We began with sea bream carpaccio dressed with lime citronette (which is a vinaigrette made with lime juice instead of vinegar), garnished with mandarin orange segments and lychees, the latter’s sweetness and louche, sensual texture almost shocking. This dish has a genuine “sashimi” feel, mirroring the Japanese taste for rich fishes served raw. It was shivery good.
Sharing the table were zucchini tagliatelle — not pasta, but wide ribbons of raw zucchini, lightly dressed in oil and lemon juice and accompanied by two huge, seared jumbo shrimp in the shell, head to tail. We’d been offered the customary grind of pepper before tasting and refused, since, well, we hadn’t tasted it yet. “This would be a wonderful dish to eat alfresco for lunch on a summer day,” said David. “But eaten inside, it needs something more.” He was right. “A pinch of salt,” said Marcela, adding one. “Something darker,” said Barb, “maybe paprika.” “White pepper,” offered Dave, “and maybe balsamic.” Maybe a heap of minced fresh basil, I thought, or a frizzle of sautéed garlic. Something.
Slow-roasted pork belly (unsmoked bacon) looked like some ancient mountaintop monument, arriving in the shape of two upright rectangles, plated atop islands of butternut squash purée, next to a surprising scree of chopped mild onions and pears. It took us each two tastes to identify the fruit. The top of each pork block was a crisped thin layer of fat; the rest was all lean, tender meat, resembling an unsmoked, unpulled version of pulled pork.
A “mini chick pea pizza” is a misnomer. It’s not a pizza at all but a thin crêpe the diameter of a standard tortilla, made of faintly grainy chick-pea flour. Resembling a thinner, more delicate Breton crêpe, it’s topped with soft, slick, sautéed calamari rings, snow peas, and a frizzy mass of greenery described as a “spring mint salad.” The combination is likable but elusive — especially if your mouth is set for pizza. (The menu should call it like it is.)
Other appetizer possibilities include several interesting salads: strawberries, arugula, and dry ricotta in one; spinach with crab meat, blue cheese, and blueberry vinaigrette for another; a normal Caprese, along with house-cured salmon, a Middle Eastern “seared beef tartar” with tabbouleh, and an antipasto of Italian cold cuts and cheeses.
The pasta list, mainly house-made, is dominated by unconventional selections. Don’t even think about spaghetti and meatballs. My eye was magnetically drawn to “Ofelle,” obviously one of those home-style dishes you don’t find in restaurants. It consists of near-flat potato dumplings the size of sand dollars, stuffed at the center with house-made “sausage.” The chef later told me that he’s fascinated by the molecular gastronomy practiced by Ferran Adrià in Barcelona and Grant Achatz in Chicago. With the sausage, he seemed to practice some molecular gastronomy of his own: That layer of loose ground meat in the middle was only a few molecules thick, at most 1/8-inch, providing more a texture than a taste. However, the tender disks of potato are lushly bathed in melted butter and sprinkled with a few sautéed fresh sage leaves. It’s so soothing a combination, it makes you feel like a kid eating at Nonna’s house in the Ligurian countryside.
House-made egg pappardelle with a lobster “beer bisque” is a near-great dish. The menu claims it comes with a “half main [sic] fresh lobster.” The chef tells me it really is Maine lobster, but we all took our demi-crustacean for a local Pacific spiny, given its shape, size, and texture. We must have gotten the runt of the lobster litter: It was small and clawless, undersized and overcooked, toughening the little meat in its skinny-butt tail. But — big but — the silky noodles and light, rich sauce were scrumptious. The sauce is made like a classic lobster bisque (from shells and spare parts), but with beer replacing the standard cognac and white wine, and no cream. Who could have imagined that beer would flatter lobster? The liquid was dotted with fresh, sweet, lightly cooked cherry tomatoes and had a buttery undertone. Now, if it came with a whole Maine lobster, even a scrawny one-pound cull with a missing claw (like the lobsters that sell for about $7 per pound at Sea Fruits, the shellfish wholesaler in Barrio Logan), it might come closer to justifying its $30 price tag.
Other current pasta choices include house-made ravioli and agnolotti, asparagus risotto with seared scallops, potato gnocchi with (get this!) tempura clams, and a light spaghetti with arugula, oyster mushrooms, and fresh tomatoes. Liguria or California? Hard to say.
The fresh tomato theme (using the only variety reliably ripe in this season, cherry tomatoes) reappears in oven-roasted sea bream ($50 to feed two). We’d tasted this fish raw in carpaccio. Then we met the intact raw fish face to face, courtesy of our waiter, who introduced us to it hoping we’d be enchanted enough by its good looks to order it. It was fresh-looking, plump, silvery-pink and bright-eyed, of a manageable size. Once it was cooked, Pietro filleted and boned it expertly before serving. This was the most purely Mediterranean dish we tasted — buttery-tender flesh sauced with a light, lively mixture of cherry tomatoes, olives, capers, fresh herbs, and white wine. The exquisite fish came with small sweet carrots and a few asparagus spears, all from local farms and tasting fresh-picked. (The difference with the carrots is in the amount of residual sugar. As with corn, the sweetness fades with each day in transit from the farm.)
Turns out that Barb doesn’t like most finfish, especially rich ones (she’s a halibut gal, to my shock). So we made the sacrifice of ordering grilled Brandt beef tenderloin with truffle and coffee sauce, to make sure she’d be sufficiently fed. We ordered it medium-rare to suit Barb and David, but maybe Pietro or the chef fell under the magnetic sway of my powerful mind-beams: It arrived beautifully red, not pink — but definitely cooked, the flesh “like buttah.” The sauce was sparse but very savory. B. and D. had no trouble eating it. There was even a little waft of ground coffee decorating the plate. This dish also came with asparagus and carrots, augmented by something called “crunchy potato purée” — by any other name, a mashed potato croquette lightly coated in panko.
A grilled version of the sea bream is another choice, as is a rack of Colorado lamb. The remaining entrées include a crisp-skinned, rare-cooked, farm-raised Atlantic salmon served with rhubarb dressing — something of a departure from the “green” theme, but there’s almost no Pacific salmon this year. Other choices include such standard fusion-fish as panko-and-sesame-crusted rare tuna and mahi mahi with Asian pesto. Given the ubiquity of the last two, you wonder about the rationale for serving them at an Italian restaurant. Maybe NTC residents, living in Eden, never venture to the fusiony fleshpots of Hillcrest or downtown?
I admit to feeling a certain trepidation when I peeked at the wine list — lots of terrific bottles, but very few under $50. Once again, Pietro saved the day. For a first-course white, he steered us to the crisp Gavi di Gavi. (I’ve had this before and find it more trustworthy than Pinot Grigio, which in its baser incarnations can resemble acidulated water fit only for soaking dirty artichokes.) For a red, he described in dizzying detail the making of a full-bodied but nontannic wine called Ripasso, which involves some Valpolicella grapes treated unconventionally — something like, “First they have all the young men of the village stomp the grapes, and when they’re done, they call in the grandmothers to stomp the grapes some more.” It did nicely, but if you order it, have it opened before you need it and poured a little before you’re ready to drink. It started out clenched but opened up genially in the glass.
We were curious about desserts, especially when Pietro seduced us with a description of the evening’s special: a hazelnut mousse with fresh strawberries, balsamic, and a cute little crisp cockscomb of dried balsamic (good eating, that). The vast excess of whipped cream on the plate stayed on the plate. We also tried a tiramisu, which was sound and sane — not too sweet, although not my ideal version. (That one is from Cafe Milano in San Francisco, and I’m like a picky widow for it — nobody else’s will do as well.)
Solare is still probably finding itself: Italian and Asian are not quite comfortable yet as platemates. But every dish we tried was at least enjoyable, with not one serious clinker. And if in the restaurant’s early days some food-bloggers complained about service, well, that’s obviously been fixed. “Are any of you Italian?” Pietro asked as we finished. Barb raised her hand. “I like seeing you enjoy the meal like this, sharing everything,” he said, seeming as happy with us as we were with him. “This is the way we Italians eat together.”
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Mark Peliccia, aged 32, was born to the job: Both parents are in the restaurant business, and both cook professionally. Although born in America, his English bears a faint accent and distinct Italian rhythm. “My mother is from Calabria, my dad is from near Rome. Do you know Luigi’s Italian Restaurant, in Mission Beach near the roller coaster? It’s a family restaurant, it’s been there for 22 years. Luigi’s my dad. I was born in New York, but when I was 10, we moved here and he opened it. Then he sold that one and opened another one. So when I was 15, 16, I decided I wanted to keep on cooking, doing the same profession. I wanted to go to Europe — France, initially, but my mom was sort of worried about me. I was only 18, so she sent me to my uncle’s in Italy. And from there, I started going to school. I went to trade school, studied cooking and waiting and business — it’s like high school, you also study English and French and math and literature, all that kind of stuff, but you also learn cooking…I’m just following the family tradition.
“In Italy I worked mostly in Northern Italy — I spent some time in Torino, some time in Venice, then I went to Florence and the Isle of Elba and traveled around working in different countries also. Then I spent four years living in Liguria, where I have a house and a little vineyard. I worked there as an executive chef for a little company. But my parents are here, so after 15 years I decided to come back home.
“I just got back six months ago. This is the first job that I’ve had since then.” I asked if he had devised the menu for Solare. “I worked with [owner] Stefano — the plates are all mine, but when I came here he had already started building the restaurant, and he had the idea that he wanted to do a green restaurant, organic, which I’m really into also, so I took his idea and brought my plates and took his ideas of using domestic lamb, domestic beef, local vegetables.” Mark is still going around to local farms in Poway, Ramona, etc., to meet with farmers and learn who’s growing what and who can supply the restaurant. “It’s gonna take a little bit of time, but we’re getting there.”
And the Asian-fusion touches? “I’ve always loved the Orient; after Italian food, my favorite foods are Japanese and Thai. On my times off, I’ve always traveled to places like Japan and Thailand, northern Africa, Kenya. And I always try to pick up about their food, their culture. When you go back, it influences what you cook at the end. So the menu is also based on my traveling. We do Mediterranean with an Asian flavor. I think certain cultures cook certain things in a better way than others — for example, duck — Chinese cook duck the best, Japanese cook eel the best. So just getting these characteristics of various cultures and bringing up their high points and putting these things together, that’s it for me.
“And I follow a lot of molecular gastronomy — doing stuff to have fun with food, and also looking at food’s scientific side. If you know what happens to food when it’s cooked, chemically, it makes it much easier when you have to cook. We’re just like chemists in a laboratory — we take two elements, we heat ’em up, we cool ’em off, mix ’em together, and come up with something, just like people do in labs. Chemistry has a lot to do with food. In June, right now, I’m going back to school. I want to do some science, but I have to take some math first. It makes it much easier when you know what happens to food scientifically, and the end result is much better. I like tradition in cooking, but I also like technology…I want to do more sous vide cooking, the slow food, all of that. But over here, coming in from Europe, Europe is much more ahead — here the cost is so high to buy the equipment. Eventually, a little at a time, we’re going to buy a vacuum sealer, [after] a little bit of time, more equipment. I like learning new stuff, it’s fun. We’re having fun, and a little bit at a time we’re growing.”
* (Very Good)
2820 Roosevelt Road, NTC Promenade, Point Loma, 619-270-9670, solarelounge.com.
HOURS: Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner: Sunday through Thursday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Closed Monday.
PRICES: Appetizers, $13–$18; pastas, $16–$30; entrées, $17–$35; desserts, $8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Creative Northern Italian cuisine with Asian-fusion touches, “made from scratch” with mostly local, sustainable ingredients. International wine list emphasizing Italy, plenty by the glass, but few choices under $40. Full bar, creative cocktails.
PICK HITS: Sea bream carpaccio with lychees; pork belly; house-made pappardelle with lobster and beer bisque; roasted sea bream for two; grilled Brandt beef tenderloin.
NEED TO KNOW: Loud sound level. Wraparound patio dining, including outdoor lounge area behind restaurant. Party rooms available. Informal. Reservations urged for dinner.