Chef Zenon with my plate of schiacciate and salad ($4.50).
It’s the word that stops me.
A new word on the awning of this old place.
This is the San Diego Hardware building. The 100-year-old curved-glass windows of what was once a Woolworth’s store are still there. San Diego Hardware moved in in 1922, stayed till 2006. Oldest family business in town. Yet the original windows still look brand-new.
The rest of what they’ve done with this whole place is exciting — for a card-carrying café-ista like yours truly. This is a real café, with a generous patio and a way-big gelato/pizza/bar/café inside.
I’m taking it in at around 9:00 p.m. Peeps are sipping martinis on the terrace outside with their dogs; inside, customers crowd around long red cabinets that contain the rainbow colors of Italian gelati.
Farther back, there’s some savory stuff displayed that has my nose a-twitchin’. I see everything from lasagna to a wood-fired pizza oven. There are lists of Italian dishes up on the wall, from eight-buck panini to more serious dishes priced in the teens.
Trouble is, I haven’t got a lot of jingle to jangle.
“Any ideas?” I ask Zenon. He’s the chef at the panini section of the long counter. We happen to be standing by a pan loaded with what look like segments of round focaccia bread stuffed with meats, cheeses, and veggies.
“They’re called schiacciate.” He pronounces it “ski-a-chee-art-ay.”
I like the look of the one closest to me. It’s got all kinds of colorful stuff.
“That’s the vegetarian,” Zenon says. “Grilled, sautéed eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes.”
“How much?” I ask.
Man — sounds too good to be true.
“It comes with a mixed green salad,” Zenon says.
He toasts it, so it’s all nice and hot, and serves it on a big plate. Gives me real flatware, too.
I take everything over to a black marble bar, where Jennifer the bartender stands in front of a blue-lit backboard loaded with exotic bottles of liquor.
I go for the cheapest drink, a Bud Light ($4), and eat my schiacciate. It’s delicioso, in an olive-oil, garlicky way. The focaccia is crisp but fall-apart tender. Salad’s huge. But it’s the tastes of the eggplant and the great yellow sautéed bell peppers and zucchini inside that bread that make this a killer combo. All for $4.50.
Of course, there’re a zillion other things to try. I’ve gotta come back just to try other versions of the schiacciate.
I take out my wallet and assess the damage. Huh…still got a Lincoln. In that case, must find out what a cremalose is.
I ask this guy, John Russo. Turns out he’s one of the owners. “We have 48 different flavors,” he says. “Twenty-four standards, and then 24 cremalose flavors. These are where you have more, say, fruit than gelato. So they’re good for you. This is exactly how they do it in Italy. We brought these Oscartielle gelato machines from Italy. We wanted this to be real.”
Gelato doesn’t get enough respect here in the U.S., but it’s as ancient as it gets — like, 5000 years old. Egyptian pharaohs would cover shaved ice with sweet fruit juices, and the Romans used to take ice off Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius, douse the ice in honey, then pig out. As they say, cool, way cool.
Gal at the gelato counter hands me different flavors to try, on li’l plastic spoons. I end up paying $4 for a mix of strawberry and coconut served in a cone. Sixty percent fruit, she says. And the coconut — I’m actually chewing the stuff. I finish it off at the bar.
Okay, all very interesting, but we’re still talking lifestyles of the rich and the famous, right? Conventioneers with tight suits and loose expense accounts?
“No!” says John. “We want to be here for everybody. We’re trying to create a café like in Italy. In Sicily. The cafés are the center of social life over there. The Gaslamp is full of places that cater to tourists, but here you can spend a lot, or a little. You can come and buy a coffee and sit all day writing your novel. Or buy a panini or a glass of wine. Maybe six, seven dollars. We’d rather people come regularly and spend a little than come once and blow $100.”
Have to say, this is music to my ears. If it pans out. Because that’s the one big complaint locals have about the Gaslamp — that eateries here don’t want you nearly as much as they want out-of-towners. People wanna get their Gaslamp back.
So, next time: Can I come at 10:00 in the morning, grab a $2.75 coffee, and sit on it for an hour without getting hassled?
Pass that test and they’ve got a big fan. ■
The Place: Cremalose, 840 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp, 619-233-9900
Type of Food: Italian gelati, pizza
Prices: Gelati and cremalose, $2 and up; panini, like Italiano (with salami, ham, mortadella, provolone), $8.50; schiacciate (focaccia bread with, e.g., sautéed eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, plus green salad; also with meats), $4.50; pastries, hot dishes (e.g., lasagna), pizza, pizza slices, coffee, wine, beer
Hours: approximately 10:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m., daily
Buses: All downtown
Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and Broadway