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835 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Old-time San Diegans remember when the Gaslamp Quarter was getting over its “Hey, sailor” sleaze-phase and Horton Plaza was new. Italian restaurants serving affordable food suddenly peppered the neighborhood — but once the rising entertainment district captured the tourists, conventioneers, and club-goers, meal tabs shot up to become the stuff of expense accounts and pricey dates-with-privileges.

Operacaffe is a welcome throwback, rolling back both the cost and the social-tension level. Its walls are warm “Pompeii red,” mostly brick-lined, with an open kitchen along one side; the tables wear white tablecloths but don’t talk the language of business-dinner formality. On the sound system, dramatic Italian tenors grapple strenuously with their arias. The affordable menu slants Florentine, but not toward Tuscany’s austere extremes of near-naked pastas and stern roasts. Instead, the food’s as sensual as it is simple (hence, closer than most local “Tuscans” to the rewarding dishes I remember enjoying in Florence).

Owner-chefs Roberto Bernardoni and Patrizia Branchi owned two successful restaurants in Florence before moving to San Diego in 1991 to join several other countrymen in opening the now-deluxe La Strada. (The waif-heroine of Fellini’s film of that name wouldn’t be able to afford a stray bread crumb at today’s prices.)

The couple sold their share in La Strada last fall to open their own place, with grown daughter Kika helping out in the front of the house. “We wanted our own restaurant, just Roberto and me,” says Patrizia, a silver-haired enchantress who presides exuberantly over the dining room several nights a week. “I loved La Strada, but now we are just doing what we want, when we want, not having to ask anybody else. And this is smaller. You can manage it better than a big place. It’s like a family business. You enjoy your customers. You talk to them and see that they’re having a good time.”

Their new restaurant offers authentic dishes that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere locally, in an atmosphere that’s welcoming and far from conventioneerish. “This one is just for San Diegans — no tourists!” Roberto rejoiced to a reporter soon after opening.

Roberto’s Florentine grandmother taught him to cook, and indeed, most dishes here taste like they’ve come from the kitchen of a talented and indulgent nonna. Patrizia always loved cooking too, and Roberto “pushed” her, she says, to adapt her dinner-party skills to the larger canvas of restaurant-cooking. The couple strictly divides the work, so they don’t get in each other’s hair: Roberto presides over house-baked breads and desserts, while Patrizia’s the source of, well, everything else.

Ben, the Lynnester, Mark, and I showed up on a Wednesday night to sample the menu. Ben’s an airline host, so he and Mark are well traveled in Italy, and Lynne loves the cuisine, too, so this was an ideal posse to tackle Operacaffe’s cuisine. The menu made choosing difficult — it’s loaded with tempting, unique dishes, complicated further by a page of daily specials. While poring over it, we enjoyed the evening’s bread selection (which changes daily) of soft-chewy white rolls, accompanied by savory green-tinged extra-virgin olive oil and a vibrant balsamic to make a DIY dip. Good omens: Aromatic, fresh EVOO (rather than the too-frequent tasteless big-brand oil — or worse yet, rancid oil) for the bagna really scores points, as does a classy balsamic.

If I Coccoli is among your appetizers (you get four pieces), parcel them out immediately to gobble while they’re hot and sexy. The gussied-up puffs of fried pizza dough, are, in Mark’s words, “a cross between a street-pretzel and a really good croissant.” The dough is thinly glazed with melted stracchino cheese and draped with pretty-in-pink prosciutto di Parma.

La Tartara is an Italianate take on beef tartare — no Czarist-era raw egg atop the raw meat-mound to terrorize you, just a scattering of “bacon sabayon” and chives, surrounded by arugula and small sautéed mushroom caps dressed in olive oil, garlic, and parsley. “Sabayon” is the name of a French sweet bacon, not the fluffy Italian egg-Marsala dessert whip (zabaglione), so don’t look for a pouf of yellow foam, merely bacon crisps. The ultra-fresh chopped filet mignon was toothsome, and the mushroom garnish was utterly right.

A special of cacciucco (pronounced “kah-CHOO-ko”) is a seafood soup from Livorno, at Tuscany’s far-western rim on the Mediterranean Riviera. Italy’s cousin to bouillabaisse, it’s built on a broth made from whitefish carcasses and a sauté of garlic and fresh herbs in olive oil, flambéed in vodka, and finished with a waft of tomato paste. The bright red liquid, gleaming with droplets of fine olive oil, is rich but light. It teems with manila clams, black mussels, shrimp, and a single large, sweet, freshwater prawn (ama ebi in sushi-lingo), along with hunks of salmon, rockfish, and halibut that substitute for the Mediterranean’s monkfish and red mullet. Every single piece was tender that evening, even the halibut! While the fish species aren’t regionally authentic, they don’t seem to wreak the damage to a cacciucco that they can inflict on a bouillabaisse. (The separately cooked fish stock probably makes the difference; a last-minute addition of salmon doesn’t fling the flavor off to an unplanned side-trip to Nova Scotia.) Two useful soldiers of crisp garlic bruschetta guard the edge of the bowl.

Salads can rarely stand up as equals alongside composed appetizers, but we were smitten with the signature Insalata Patrizia, with spring greens, arugula, hearts of palm, mozzarella, avocado, and fresh-shaved parmigiano. “Normally, I’m not crazy about hearts of palm,” said Lynne (“Me neither,” I chorused), “but this dressing is so right for them.” Ben said, “The avocado brings everything into focus.” Mark said, “This is why everybody loves Tuscan cooking. It’s simple but so beautifully proportioned, with that light, gentle dressing that makes everything taste perfect.” We agreed we’d happily order every one of our starters again. Based on the tenderness of the seafood in the soup and the delicacy of the salad dressing, I’d also gladly bet my $12 on the Insalata di Mare (seafood salad enriched with canneloni beans — oh so Florentine, and what a perfect lunch!) or $11 on the Operacaffe salad with shrimp, mango, avocado, and citrus dressing.

We split a stand-alone pasta course of fascinating Penne Speperina, dressed with spicy Italian sausage meat, mascarpone, and mint, a controversial dish in previous reviews and blogs. The answer may be that it’s best in small portions — split among a quartet of eaters (an octet would be better yet). The mint is subtle and might be hard to identify if you didn’t already know its identity, but you definitely taste it. The sausage meat is interesting, but don’t hope for the familiar Little Italy fennel flavor — Patrizia doesn’t like it, and carefully chose a less-seasoned brand. The impact comes from unctuous mascarpone swathing thick, chewy pasta. Three forkfuls for excitement, four to fulfillment, five to satiation, and any more may mean exhaustion, unless you’re a mighty trencherman indeed.

Our entrées included another pasta and a pizza, plus two protein-based secondi that proved better than either. A special of Porcini Ravioli in Bolognese Ragout appealed to ragout-loving Lynne and my own mushroom passion. Lynne liked the coarse-ground meat-and-tomato sauce (which left me in neutral gear), but the ravioli contained only cheese, minus discernible mushrooms. Patrizia later told me that the ravioli are shipped frozen from Italy, and the company sent cheese instead of porcini ravioli that day — the waiter was supposed to warn us. The regular menu’s Porcini Ravioli with Sage Butter is one of Patrizia’s favorites and no doubt much better.

I was slightly disappointed with the pizza, expecting an ultra-thin, Roman-style crust like those at Via Italia in Encinitas. This crust was more New York–style — thicker and softer — but with Rome’s minimalist toppings. The signature Pizza Opera had drifts of raw arugula and sheets of sweet-tender Parma prosciutto dancing around loose: the layer of mascarpone cheese was too thin to anchor them to the crust. Plus, guiltily, I missed the rich Neapolitan goops of mozzarella and tomato sauce that define the American conception of the dish. (Like the joke about a certain Texan president — “all hat, no cattle” — this dish struck us as “all crust, no pizza.”) Next time, I’d try the Margherita, with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella; or the Vegetariana, with fresh tomato, mozzarella, and seasonal grilled veggies.

But our entrées from the secondi list more than compensated. I usually hate chicken breast (boring! dry!), but the menu offered an enticing version in Pollo Reale (“royal chicken”), a traditional Florentine dish topped with sweet gorgonzola and porcini. The mushrooms — frozen porcini imported from Italy — were meltingly tender, and the gorgonzola, upon heating, relaxed into an opulent sauce. The chicken was nearly as tender as the mushrooms. The plate included a little cone of risotto and a few firm-tender asparagus spears. Royal, indeed.

Ossobuchini Milanese are “baby veal shanks,” per the menu. “Isn’t that redundant?” asked logical Ben. Turned out not: the meat was ultra-tender, its dainty small shank-bones filled with soft, sweet marrow. We’re just past Easter, when traditionally people of the Northern Hemisphere cook up the seasonal new “crop” of young rams and billies (before they can mature into stinky teenage sex-fiends). I know less about cattle seasons, but maybe this is the calf equivalent of “spring lamb.” The delicate rosemary-scented tomato sauce was lovely, the saffron risotto an ideal plate-mate.

For dessert, the regular Torta di Ricotta (Italian cheesecake with pine nuts and raisins) wasn’t available that night, but there was a simpler version without the nuts and fruits. It was tall, airy, and barely sweet, its insubstantial waft of crust made of bread crumbs with the barest touch of sugar — a real Italian grandma’s cheesecake, sincere and authentic. If our posse were Italian, we’d have been teary-eyed with nostalgia for our cara nonna back home in Firenze.

Torta del Nonno (“grandpa’s cake”) proved to be a shortbread cake suffused with bittersweet chocolate, topped with pine nuts. As a fan of torta della nonna (“grandma’s cake,” a coarse-textured cornmeal-and-nut tort), it surprised me — I didn’t realize that granddad’s tastes were so different from granny’s. Chocolate-loving Mark was thrilled, and the rest of us liked it plenty, though we were more excited by that plain-as-dirt cheesecake.

Needless to say, the espresso was above suspicion. Is this not a genuine Italian restaurant? Well, yes, that’s precisely what I like about it. Even in the menu’s pan-regional “pick hits” of dishes from other regions (e.g., osso bucco is from Milan, well north of Florence, ragout is Bolognese, and fettucine with pesto is Genovese), you’re not getting standard American-Italian restaurant versions but personal interpretations different enough from the norm to make them fresh again. The ghost of Roberto’s grandma is still standing over the chefs’ shoulders, and we can taste the living spirit of Florentine home-cooking.

(Very Good)
835 Fourth Avenue (across from Horton Plaza garage entrance), 619-234-6538, operacaffe.com
HOURS: Monday–Thursday 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday till 11:00 p.m.; Sunday 3:00–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers $8–$15; Salads $6–$12; Pizzas $11–$13; Pastas $10–$14; Entrées $16–$25; Desserts $6. Nightly specials slightly higher.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Tuscan cuisine, with unique Florentine dishes, daily specials with seasonal choices. Italian and California wines, mostly affordable, plenty by the glass.
PICK HITS: I Coccoli (fried pizza-dough puffs); La Tartara (beef tartare); Insalata Patrizia; Caciucco Seafood Soup (special); Pollo Reale (chicken with gorgonzola, porcini); Ossobuchini Milanese; cheesecake. Other good bets: La Piramide (polenta-gorgonzola-porcini appetizer), Operacaffe and di Mare salads, porcini ravioli, seafood pastas.
NEED TO KNOW: Horton Plaza now has “self-validating” machines for two hours’ free parking (no purchase required). Moderately noisy when crowded. Numerous lacto-vegetarian dishes; a few vegan pastas, plus adaptable salads.

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