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CinKuni a portmanteau of Italian and Japanese

Everybody wins when miso meets marinara

The "Astro Boy" sushi roll includes spicy scallops, ahi, yellowtail, shiitake mushrooms, and a Mediterranean ingredient: fried artichoke.
The "Astro Boy" sushi roll includes spicy scallops, ahi, yellowtail, shiitake mushrooms, and a Mediterranean ingredient: fried artichoke.

There was never any doubt I would try the place. Whether restaurateurs Cinzia Zolfanelli and Kuniko Holmes intended to be provocative when they mashed their names together to open CinKuni, it’s impossible to ignore the way they’ve merged their respective culinary backgrounds. Chef Cinzia previously operated Mama Mia’s in Pacific Beach; Kuniko had owned Sushi 2 in the Gaslamp. After their respective restaurants closed, they teamed up to open a single entity, and just like that, El Cajon Boulevard is home to Italian-Japanese fusion.

Place

CinKuni

3025 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego

Set up within the former home of beer venue Tiger! Tiger!, CinKuni enters North Park as the rare place customers may order pasta, ramen, pizza, and sushi. And while occasionally these dishes stay in their own lane — for example, the rainbow roll is a rainbow roll – more often than not, there’s a subtle cross pollination of ingredients and ideas from two cultures that developed roughly six thousand miles apart.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Sometimes it’s not so subtle. Check the top of the pasta menu to find spaghetti Calimero ($23), labeled as “chef Cinzia’s favorite.” It’s worth noting that Calimero was a cartoon chicken popular in 1960s Italy, later adapted as a Japanese anime character in 1970s Japan.

Clam spaghetti, made with Japanese ingredients including sake, miso, Kara, and bonito flakes

In similar fashion, this dish picks up an Italian bistro staple — pasta with clams in a sauce of white wine, garlic, and olive oil — then updates it with Japanese ingredients. So, while garlic and olive oil remain, the wine is swapped out in favor of sake and miso, and the clam dish is topped with ikura (salmon roe) and bonito flakes. The result is a noodle dish redolent of ocean salinity rather than Mediterranean terroir.

The menu is way too long for me to try everything I wanted to, but by appearances at least, most dishes provide less shocking adaptations. A Mediterranean tempura vegetables appetizer ($12) involves stuffed zucchini blossoms and artichoke, while the Godzilla tonkotsu ramen ($21) features Italian sausage as a topping alongside chashu pork.

One restaurant, serving ramen, sushi, pizza, and pasta

On the dessert menu, a classic tiramisu is offset by an alternative matcha tiramisu, where the ladyfingers are dipped in green tea as opposed to coffee (both at $7). I was more pleased to see the tempura ice cream I relished as a teen in Japan, turn up here as tempura gelato ($8) — quite the treat.

Going in, I was perhaps most interested in how Italian fusion might be applied to sushi, and most ardent fans will be glad to hear that the answer is: sparingly. Most rolls and nigiri pieces stay true to familiar sushi renderings, with occasional Mediterranean infusions including cilantro vinaigrette and artichoke. I stumbled onto what I was told is the most popular roll when I ordered the Astro Boy ($18): it rolls up spicy scallops with a combination of fried artichoke and sautéed shitake mushrooms, topping the roll with alternating pieces of ahi tuna and yellowtail, plus cucumber and bonito flakes. There’s a lot to this roll, and I’m not sure the artichoke added to it, but I appreciated the effort, even if I’m inclined to return to the sushi standards.

A fusion restaurant at the former site of Tiger! Tiger!

Owing to the large menu, I would expect that’s not an uncommon reaction to a few of CinKuni’s dishes. I suspect it will evolve over time as the team effectively throws things at the wall to see what sticks. However, if there’s one area the restaurant may build a foundation for prosperity, I would say it’s the marriage of tomato and miso.

It’s present in red sauces on the pasta menu, there’s miso marinara on the chicken parm, and various miso-infused tomato sauces top CinKuni’s Neapolitan style pies, whipped up in the resident wood firing pizza oven. I tried it on the so-called Statue of David, another early customer favorite due to cross-cultural toppings of Italian sausage, chashu pork, mozzarella, and shitake mushrooms. Miso and tomatoes happen to be two of the world’s finest providers of umami. The addition of miso makes this pizza sauce less acidic, a little more earthy, but deepens the umami to such a degree that the more bites you take, the more you find yourself craving another, to keep the marvelous flavor from vanishing. It really makes me want to go back for that chicken parm.

Wood-fired pizza made with miso-marinara, topped by Italian sausage, chashu pork, shaved beef, and shiitake mushrooms

A lot of food writers grouse about fusion concepts, usually leveling complaints about gimmickiness or inauthenticity. But we're almost contractually obligated to try them. I tend to take a historical view: so many of the dishes we love specifically arose from intermingling and trade between cultures. For example, Italian food never involved tomatoes until well after they were first introduced to Europe from their origins here in the Americas. but where would it be without marinara now? If miso-abetted pizza were the only good thing to arise from the merging of Cin and Kuni, I would already recommend it. But as a guy who learned to put teriyaki sauce on his pizza in high school, I firmly believe there’s room for further exploration, and willing to bet there's more fun exploration ahead at CinKuni.

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The "Astro Boy" sushi roll includes spicy scallops, ahi, yellowtail, shiitake mushrooms, and a Mediterranean ingredient: fried artichoke.
The "Astro Boy" sushi roll includes spicy scallops, ahi, yellowtail, shiitake mushrooms, and a Mediterranean ingredient: fried artichoke.

There was never any doubt I would try the place. Whether restaurateurs Cinzia Zolfanelli and Kuniko Holmes intended to be provocative when they mashed their names together to open CinKuni, it’s impossible to ignore the way they’ve merged their respective culinary backgrounds. Chef Cinzia previously operated Mama Mia’s in Pacific Beach; Kuniko had owned Sushi 2 in the Gaslamp. After their respective restaurants closed, they teamed up to open a single entity, and just like that, El Cajon Boulevard is home to Italian-Japanese fusion.

Place

CinKuni

3025 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego

Set up within the former home of beer venue Tiger! Tiger!, CinKuni enters North Park as the rare place customers may order pasta, ramen, pizza, and sushi. And while occasionally these dishes stay in their own lane — for example, the rainbow roll is a rainbow roll – more often than not, there’s a subtle cross pollination of ingredients and ideas from two cultures that developed roughly six thousand miles apart.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Sometimes it’s not so subtle. Check the top of the pasta menu to find spaghetti Calimero ($23), labeled as “chef Cinzia’s favorite.” It’s worth noting that Calimero was a cartoon chicken popular in 1960s Italy, later adapted as a Japanese anime character in 1970s Japan.

Clam spaghetti, made with Japanese ingredients including sake, miso, Kara, and bonito flakes

In similar fashion, this dish picks up an Italian bistro staple — pasta with clams in a sauce of white wine, garlic, and olive oil — then updates it with Japanese ingredients. So, while garlic and olive oil remain, the wine is swapped out in favor of sake and miso, and the clam dish is topped with ikura (salmon roe) and bonito flakes. The result is a noodle dish redolent of ocean salinity rather than Mediterranean terroir.

The menu is way too long for me to try everything I wanted to, but by appearances at least, most dishes provide less shocking adaptations. A Mediterranean tempura vegetables appetizer ($12) involves stuffed zucchini blossoms and artichoke, while the Godzilla tonkotsu ramen ($21) features Italian sausage as a topping alongside chashu pork.

One restaurant, serving ramen, sushi, pizza, and pasta

On the dessert menu, a classic tiramisu is offset by an alternative matcha tiramisu, where the ladyfingers are dipped in green tea as opposed to coffee (both at $7). I was more pleased to see the tempura ice cream I relished as a teen in Japan, turn up here as tempura gelato ($8) — quite the treat.

Going in, I was perhaps most interested in how Italian fusion might be applied to sushi, and most ardent fans will be glad to hear that the answer is: sparingly. Most rolls and nigiri pieces stay true to familiar sushi renderings, with occasional Mediterranean infusions including cilantro vinaigrette and artichoke. I stumbled onto what I was told is the most popular roll when I ordered the Astro Boy ($18): it rolls up spicy scallops with a combination of fried artichoke and sautéed shitake mushrooms, topping the roll with alternating pieces of ahi tuna and yellowtail, plus cucumber and bonito flakes. There’s a lot to this roll, and I’m not sure the artichoke added to it, but I appreciated the effort, even if I’m inclined to return to the sushi standards.

A fusion restaurant at the former site of Tiger! Tiger!

Owing to the large menu, I would expect that’s not an uncommon reaction to a few of CinKuni’s dishes. I suspect it will evolve over time as the team effectively throws things at the wall to see what sticks. However, if there’s one area the restaurant may build a foundation for prosperity, I would say it’s the marriage of tomato and miso.

It’s present in red sauces on the pasta menu, there’s miso marinara on the chicken parm, and various miso-infused tomato sauces top CinKuni’s Neapolitan style pies, whipped up in the resident wood firing pizza oven. I tried it on the so-called Statue of David, another early customer favorite due to cross-cultural toppings of Italian sausage, chashu pork, mozzarella, and shitake mushrooms. Miso and tomatoes happen to be two of the world’s finest providers of umami. The addition of miso makes this pizza sauce less acidic, a little more earthy, but deepens the umami to such a degree that the more bites you take, the more you find yourself craving another, to keep the marvelous flavor from vanishing. It really makes me want to go back for that chicken parm.

Wood-fired pizza made with miso-marinara, topped by Italian sausage, chashu pork, shaved beef, and shiitake mushrooms

A lot of food writers grouse about fusion concepts, usually leveling complaints about gimmickiness or inauthenticity. But we're almost contractually obligated to try them. I tend to take a historical view: so many of the dishes we love specifically arose from intermingling and trade between cultures. For example, Italian food never involved tomatoes until well after they were first introduced to Europe from their origins here in the Americas. but where would it be without marinara now? If miso-abetted pizza were the only good thing to arise from the merging of Cin and Kuni, I would already recommend it. But as a guy who learned to put teriyaki sauce on his pizza in high school, I firmly believe there’s room for further exploration, and willing to bet there's more fun exploration ahead at CinKuni.

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