Several blocks from the epicenter of bustling Hillcrest sits an epicenter of its own: Busalacchi's on Fifth. The restaurant, which has been serving authentic Sicilian cuisine for over 20 years, is a consistent favorite among locals. In fact, it has become so popular that, since opening it in 1986, owners Joe and Lisa Busalacchi have opened not one, but seven other Italian restaurants in San Diego. The family of Busalacchi Restaurants stands as a testament to the couple’s commitment to authentic food, gracious service, and warm comfortable settings, a winning trio that all started with the original: Busalacchi’s on Fifth.
While housed in a former Victorian-style house, the restaurant looks surprisingly modern. The building's dark paint and striped awning lend an understated elegance, while the front yard—transformed into a sheltered patio—looks casual and inviting. Parking is plentiful on the street in front of the restaurant, as well as on neighboring blocks, and it is only moments between car door and front door.
The entrance lies up a short ramp, at what I assume was the turn-of-the-century house's original front door and foyer. The main dining room occupies the center of the house, with a bar just beyond, a semi-private back room to one side, and a small alcove to the other. There is also a private room comprising the house's entire second floor, which is usually reserved for private parties but occasionally used on busy nights. This space is the architectural soul of the house, with Queen Anne dining chairs, tall ceilings, and exposed sloping rafters that evoke Victorian times. Upon setting foot in the second-floor room, I instantly wish I had an excuse to throw a private dinner party here.
But downstairs, the classic, unpretentious decor is just as welcoming. While many Italian restaurants try to recreate the ambiance of a trattoria or evoke the romance of the Italian countryside, Busalacchi's has restrained itself. The decor neither evokes Italy nor tries to recreate it; it instead strives to create a comfortable, elegant atmosphere that lets guests feel at home. Dim lighting, carpeted floors, and dark wood create a warm, comforting space that seems more like a house than a restaurant. The main dining room is filled with small, linened tables and wooden, upholstered chairs, which fit comfortably amid plush carpeting and pale golden walls. Tasteful oil paintings adorn the walls, and a mantel stands proudly amid a wall of bricks, lined with antique books and a wide mirror. While Lisa and Joe Busalacchi may have transformed an old home into a restaurant, they certainly never lost sight of private hospitality.
We're led past the bar to an alcove, which I immediately recognize as the original house's sunroom. With just three tables, it is one of the most secluded areas of the restaurant. As we take a seat, the late evening's natural light streams in from the oversized windows that overlook the outdoor patio, while dim pendant lights look poised to take over as the evening emerges. Faint music plays in the background, just audible enough to fill silence but not intrude in conversations. It is a great spot to enjoy a meal.
The menu is a treasure trove of flavorful creations, and as our eyes pour over our options, our stomachs start to rumble. Right on cue, a server arrives with a basket of warm garlic bread, thick slices of soft dough surrounded by a delicate layer of crispiness, a medley of toasted garlic, butter, sesame seeds, and spices.
We turn to the wine list, a short but inviting selection of Italian and American bottles. The by-the-glass selection includes several offerings from each wine category, including several intriguing Italian varietals. We opt for a Super Tuscan, a Capezzana, as well as a Don Giovanni Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, which the restaurant has just started offering by the glass.
While Busalacchi's cuisine overall can be considered Sicilian, some dishes stretch across Italy's vast regions. The Pesto Crespelle screams Northern Italy, incorporating rich creamy white sauce, fresh pesto, and a light crab filling. Its presentation is elegant and gentle, a wide, thin crepe stretched across the plate, blanketed by a thick layer of pale white béchamel sauce, as if blanketed by snowfall. I taste the sauce first, and pure decadence reaches my lips. It is classic and elegant, thicker and more substantial than the crepe itself. The thin layers of crepe dough pull apart gracefully, revealing a rich filling of pesto and cheese studded with thick pieces of lump crab meat. Deep and resonant, each bite glides across the tongue, the effortless harmonizing of flavors.
The Busalacchi's Imbotitti is Sicilian at heart. Each bite is an adventure, a combination of wildly diverse ingredients, each contributing their own textures and flavors. Thick, cylindrical buccatini—hollow, spaghetti-like pasta—peek out from a ring of cooked eggplant, the telltale flecks of basil revealing their pesto coating. Hidden amid the pasta tubes is a medley of melted cheeses—ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan—lending a sweet, creamy flavor that doesn't reveal itself until the second or third bite. But the crowning achievement of the dish is literally the crowning component, a thick, chunky pomodoro sauce that blankets everything else. Its flavor, bursting of fresh, tangy tomatoes, is awakening, lively, and vibrant, wowing our taste buds with each bite.
The Chopped Salad is another medley of textures and flavors, not daring to let us down between courses. Glistening from just-applied dressing, the salad is a tower of harmonious but varied components—strips of crisp romaine leaves woven among thickly diced tomatoes and avocados, chick peas, chunks of gorgonzola, and pitted kalamata olives. The structure is topped with a trio of shoestring onion rings, crisped to a deep brown. It is nearly impossible to get a forkful that contains every ingredient, but it is so easy to spear forkful after forkful. We relish in the fresh, tangy dressing, the nutty chick peas, and the sweet salty olives, happy that even the salad course is given the utmost of attention.
The pasta selection at Busalacchi's is varied and exciting, with a collection that includes unique family recipes as well as classic dishes. Variety is the overarching theme, with each dish arriving with a myriad of textures and flavors on the plate. The Fruitti de Mar is a quintessential example, a deep bowl of linguini peppered with the "fruits of the sea": mussels, clams, calamari, baby octopi, all bathed in a fresh, light tomato sauce. The bowl arrives brimming with gems—mussel and clam shells rim the bowl, while pale rings of calamari are tucked amid the ribbons. One bite reveals that while the presentation is playful, the flavors are serious—the tomato sauce is fresh, vibrant, and lively, and just light enough to refrain from overpowering the delicate seafood. Thick ribbons of al dente linguini are a tactile delight to twirl, and each piece of shellfish proves perfectly cooked. What's more, the bowl seems bottomless—despite valiant attempts, our forks never reach the plate.
But the dish that will linger in my mind the longest, the dish that captures my heart this meal, is the Veal Saltimbocca. A rather popular dish at Italian restaurants, the version at Busalacchi's surpasses any that I have sampled. It comes down to the quality of the veal—it is so sweet and creamy that it seems beyond tender, barely meat at all. The dish arrives a duo of veal medallions covered by paper-thin pieces of barely melted mozzarella—a decadent twist on an already-decadent recipe—that are nearly the same pale white as the veal itself. Sandwiched between the two layers are equally thin strips of prosciutto, and topping each structure is a gently fried sage leaf. The medallions rest in a shallow pool of lemon beurre blanc, a tangy reduction of white wine, butter, and lemon. Each bite is transporting, absolutely pillowy veal melting on the tongue while a chorus of tangy, sweet, and creamy flavors dance across the palate. The dish's name means "jumps in the mouth," and nowhere has this dish jumped with such joy, such harmonious flavors and perfect execution as at Busalacchi's.
We eye the dessert tray with curiosity, but know that there is really only one option: the cannoli. It arrives in all its Sicilian glory, a crisp, flaky shell wrapped around a pale, creamy center. My favorite thing about eating cannoli is that it requires absolutely demolishing a perfect form—there is no other way to ensure each bite has that perfect ratio of filling and shell. As we set to work forcefully pressing down with our spoons to shatter the crisp shell, we transform the perfect cylindrical form into a visual disaster. But the ruined presentation allows the perfect bite—crisp, subtly sweet shell and sugary, tangy cream. I slowly savor a spoonful and realize there is nowhere else in the world I'd rather be.
Busalacchi's doesn't transport you to Italy—it doesn't need to. Instead, it reminds you of the pleasures that are to be had in this wonderfully diverse city we call home. Indeed, if there is one thing Busalacchi's gets right, it's making guests not only feel comfortable and warm, but providing such well-crafted, fundamentally good cuisine that everything else seems to vanish and all we know is this: we are at home.