Clinking wine glasses is the new handshake.
Ten of us, seated around a long restaurant table, sharing whatever bits of news we’d heard about this disruptive pandemic coronavirus. The St. Patrick’s Day parade canceled. The Padres season delayed. Costco out of toilet paper. We’re a bit like the ten characters of medieval epic poem The Decameron, who escape plague-ridden Florence for the Italian countryside, where they amuse one another by telling stories, presumably over wine.
2977 Upas St, San Diego
Except we’ve escaped self-quarantine to visit a happening new Italian restaurant in North Park, where we’re amusing ourselves over shared bottles of wine. It’s not that we’re wholly unmindful of the social distancing encouraged by every government outlet. We’re careful not to mingle silverware or double dip, and we establish one important rule early on: no handshakes or kisses. We only greet each other by clinking wineglasses: cheers.
Fresh bucatoni for sale by Cori Pastificio
They can’t do this in Italy right now, but we’re not on lockdown yet. Restaurants and other local businesses remain open, and this group has gathered to support them while we can. Besides, each of us have been aching to visit to visit Cori Pastificio Trattoria, the new restaurant opened by world champion pasta maker Accursio Lotà. This is the chef branching out on his own after a successful tenure leading the kitchen at Liberty Station’s bib gourmand restaurant, Solare.
Arugula maccheroni for sale by Cori Pastificio
Despite a litany of glamorous credentials, Lotà has created a restaurant that is unassuming, modeled more off the nostalgia he feels toward the informal trattorias of his native Sicily than any sense of grandeur. A glass case displays the rotating selection of house-made pastas: today it includes arugula maccheroni, bucatoni, a spinach and ricotta ravioli. Not only are they served on the menu, but sold fresh to cook at home, along with accompanying sauces. As we enjoy full-service dining at our table, people who live nearby line up at the counter to pick up dinner for the family.
Braised lamb sugo with lemon zest over saffron shell pasta
They may have the brighter idea in these interesting times. I’m not an epidemiologist. I don’t have any cogent advice to offer people wondering whether it’s safe to go out to dinner. What constitutes a responsible decision may depend on whether you think the pandemic response is overblown, or under-reported. For all I know, it could depend on whether you thought the dress was blue, or the recording said "yanni."
Farro salad over a cauliflower puree and topped by burrata
I can tell you this, our party of ten were not the only ones braving this dining room. By 7 pm, every table was taken. The din of conversation may have paused whenever someone sneezed (Sorry! Someone’s perfume tickled my nose, I swear!), but ultimately, we managed to enjoy a terrific meal without too much anxiety.
A table set for deviants, with vintage chairs from North Park's old Paesanos restaurant
Are we being irresponsible? Some would say yes. I’ve continued dining out, because I have this job that requires it. Lotà keeps cooking, because this new restaurant is his investment and livelihood, and that of his team. This reality is playing itself out all over town, at restaurants, breweries, coffeeshops, and every manner of retail business trying to balance public health needs with the business of survival.
A casual counter set up for take-home pastas and to-go orders
And that’s the point of our little gathering. The group I’m dining with has launched the hashtag #DeviantSquad, not to flout the best recommendations of health experts, but to engage small businesses and, with well-washed hands, call attention to small businesses that could wind up harmed while people stay home to, presumably, make crafts out of excess toilet paper.
“We urge the community to think locally before choosing big box stores or Amazon for everything right now,” says hospitality marketing professional Marie Daniels, one of the Deviant Squad organizers. “This small contribution back into the community has the potential to allow smaller businesses to weather the storm.”
“We are showing cautious unity with our small business community," echoes co-organizer Fernando Gaxiola, a Baja wine ambassador and owner of Baja Wine + Food, "shopping our needs with those who are most likely to absorb the negative economic turmoil of the crisis."
For small businesses, the margin between success and closing for good is slim. If you look closely around Cori Pastificio, there are signs of it everywhere. For example, Lotà took over this property following the closure of his friend’s restaurant, Cardamom Bakery. The bistro tables outside previously occupied the patio of East Village’s dearly departed Café Chloe. The vintage dining chairs belonged to Paesano’s, the Italian restaurant two blocks away that closed last year after more than fifty years (these built-to-last chairs are in exceptional shape, by the way).
As long as the deviants remain virus-free, they will continue shopping and dining out (follow the hashtag to find out where). For those inclined to stay safely indoors the crisis passes, they point out that there are plenty of ways to support local restaurants without dining out: buying gift cards now to use later, ordering delivery, or picking up take out. Cori Pastificio will even run your order out to the curb.