8131 Broadway, Lemon Grove
This slightly upscale but still casual Italian restaurant is a hidden gem for East County foodies. Open and airy with a decor that is shabbily chic like an Italian farmhouse, there are plenty of dishes worthy of return visits, including the meatball lollipops, made from a combination of beef, pork, veal, garlic and tomato sauce. The $18 Pork Belly Roll comes wrapped around spinach, mozzarella and pancetta and is topped with mushroom sauce —great comfort food. For pizza, get one topped with the housemade fennel sausage.
2401 Truxtun Road #102, Liberty Station
Ceviche may be all the rage in San Diego, but the style made at Pisco in Liberty Station (and Carlsbad) is a personal favorite: Rather than be served as a cocktail with crackers or chips, the ceviches are served Peruvian-style: As cold soups. They are just the ticket during the 80-degree days that pop up frequently between June and November. There are five styles available. My favorite is the Mixto; a spicy blend of rocoto peppers, calamari, shrimp and other fish, depending on availability. True to its name, Pisco serves lots of cocktails made with Pisco, a brandy-like beverage commonly used in the Pisco Sour.
407 Encinitas Boulevard, Encinitas
This is a great place for family dining: Parking isn’t an issue like the Little Italy location, and there are lots of games for the kids to play while adults watch sports and drink beer (oh, and don’t forget the giant chicken). The Crack Shack sells 10 pieces of chicken $30 — actually a good deal for a small group. Make sure you get some fries cooked in schmaltz as well. Regulars know to ask for the spicy chicken oysters, which are not like Rocky Mountain Oysters. Vegetarians do have the option of getting salads, but whether in sandwiches or on the bone, chicken is the star here.
926 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach
Want pizza but can’t decide whether you want thick or thin crust? Ambrogio15, a Milanese-style pizzeria offers both options: One style is thin and crisp and features top-of-the-line ingredients such as burrata cheese and proscuitto, while a thicker pie, such as the one with nuvola porchetta, are more like chunks of fresh bread topped with fresh ingredients. There is also a sandwich style of pizza called the scrocciarella vegetariana that serves up fresh greens, veggies, and between two crispy focaccia loaves. Bonus points for a carefully curated wine list that features lots of biodynamic wines grown in Italy.
1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla
La Valencia's Med Room features a timeless setting with great ocean views if you’re sitting on the terrace, but there is some innovative food going on here, too. Rather than make a carb-heavy version of paella, the chefs deconstruct it by using rice balls to put the emphasis on the fish freshness. The salmon is also a winner thanks to its perfectly crispy skin. And the octopus appetizer has great flavor thanks to the romesco sauce and crispy Spanish ham.
710 Seacoast Place, Imperial Beach
This Italian eatery is new to Imperial Beach, but Verandina's setting near the beach and cozy decor make it a great spot for seafood, such as the breaded swordfish or specials such as the octopus-potato dish cooked in a bright tomato sauce. Pastas and sausages are made in house. Vegetarians will love the cauliflower meatballs made with tangy cheese while the boar sausage and penne is a craveable dish. Great wine list to match.
932 Orange Avenue, Coronado
This old-school Italian restaurant has been open for more than three decades on Coronado’s main drag, but you’re to be forgiven if you feel transported to a high class ristorante in New York once inside. Dishes such as linguini and clams or lobster risotto are sure bets, but sometimes they whip up outrageous specials such as a grilled veal chop topped with Dungeness crab, sliced parma prosciutto, white asparagus and fontina cheese, with a sherry demi-glace. For starters, the calamari is awesome: crispy, not greasy. For dessert, get the chocolate salami, a nut roll made with dark chocolate and served with a blue cheese wedge and fresh berries.