Seafood pasta made with mussels and clams. There's usually shrimp, but the restaurant is conscientious about catering to food allergies.
I’d seen enough photos to know Cesarina offers one heck of a romantic dining destination. A lot of good that does anybody now, though. Or so I thought.
4161 Voltaire Street, San Diego
Truth is, in the past couple years, San Diego has embarked on somewhat of a golden age of Italian dining. We’re not talking about the sort of Disneyfied, Italianesque eateries built to lure tourist traffic to Little Italy. Rather, we’ve experienced a veritable wave of straight-out-of-the-motherland restaurants. Opened by Italian expats, usually representing their own specific region from the motherland, most often boasting made-on-sight pastas and imported, cured meats. Most of them are even contemporary enough to offer vegan menus.
My point being, I never made a priority of going to Cesarina before the pandemic started, because I already felt inundated by a backlog of fresh Italian restaurants to try. Already had a long list of favorites. Already couldn’t afford to revisit all the untried dishes I knew about. And, lately, if I couldn’t even enjoy the atmosphere of the most ballyhooed romantic patio in Point Loma, what was the point?
The famed but currently empty patio of Point Loma's Cesarina
Well, I was wrong to wait. I’m positive my wife and I will make time to spend an evening luxuriating over pasta and wine options on premise when Cesarina may once again host customers. But in the meantime, it’s the food, more than the atmosphere, that deserves all the attention anyway.
What prompted me to order, at last, was one of Cesarina’s take out combo deals. It offers several, but in particular, a $40 “Romantic dinner.” The two-person meal includes fresh focaccia, a salad, two pasta dishes, and a dessert. With special pricing on wine bottles, the deal allowed me to bring the Rome-inspired restaurant’s sense of romance home.
Mafalde pasta resembles ruffled ribbons, adding terrific texture to a sausage and mushroom parmesan sauce.
The cynic in me half expected small pasta portions that would make me question the deal’s value. But the cardboard take-out boxes were heavy with the good stuff. Adorned with sprigs of fresh rosemary, the pastas even looked good inside the box.
Pastas available for the deal come from Cesarina’s $16-20 build-your-own pasta menu (as well as the corresponding vegan menu), which regardless of sauce, let choose your own pasta shape. We opted for sumptuous bolognese made with tonnarelli, which is similar to spaghetti, though the noodles are a little thicker and pressed into a square shape rather than round. The subtly different shape worked well to catch a little more of the finely minced meat saturate in the tomato-based sauce.
Even the pandemic parklet built by Cesarina screams romance.
For the second pasta, we got boscaiola, which features a creamy parmesan sauce coating house made pork sausage, fresh peas, and chunks of porcini, cremini, and shitake mushrooms. We had the earthy, umami-rich dish over mafalde pasta, which is sort of like a wide fettucini, with a ruffled ribbon edge. It’s remarkable how something so simple as a ruffled edge can so dramatically add to a noodle’s texture. Each bite is basically like the end piece of a lasagna.
Near perfect renditions of Caesar salad and tiramisu completed the meal, and as if that whole experience wasn’t enough to win me over, Cesarina truly ingratiated itself to me when I ordered a seafood pasta from its pricier Fave Pasta menu.
Usually, its Spaghetti all scoglio ($26) features garlicky tomato sauce laden with clams, mussels, and shrimp. While my wife craved the shellfish pasta, my own shrimp allergy threatened to leave me out. Fortunately, Cesarina’s online ordering set-up makes it quite easy to note a food allergy, and to select a no-shrimp option.
The result was pasta with a few extra bi-valves. Better yet, when I picked up the order, the serve at Cesarina let me know that the alla scoglio sauce typically includes a shrimp stock, but noting my preference the chef had subbed in a fish stock instead.
It became clear Cesarina is willing to go those extra lengths to ensure a terrific dining experience, even when restricted to a take-out model. It was a little sad viewing its beautiful space for the first time sitting empty (even its sidewalk parklet looked amazing). But enjoying it in person can wait. This is one of the top Italian restaurants I’ve experienced. Every dish I’ve tried tastes alive, as if it’s managed to capture the overflowing essence of its ingredients before they had time to realize they were on a plate. Or in this case, inside a box.