Pacific Beach is known for its young, trendy population, its crowded beaches, and its vibrant nightlife. Yet amid the margarita bars and sunglasses stores are the neighborhood’s true gems, the places that seem to surpass fashion and fads by staying true to the classic and the timeless. In a small building on the 1500-block of Garnet Avenue is one such treasure, a family-run restaurant that has been serving authentic Italian food for nearly a decade: Caffe Bella Italia.
Caffe Bella Italia was opened in 2000, by husband-and-wife team Stefano Ceresoli and Roberta Ruffini. It is their second restaurant, the first Caffe Bella Italia having opened in Kearny Mesa several years earlier. The restaurant has established itself as a neighborhood favorite, and boasts a loyal, local following of both neighborhood dwellers and other San Diego residents who flock to this quiet block of Garnet Avenue for a welcome setting, friendly service, and a mouthwatering selection of traditional Italian fare.
Guests enter through an elegant walkway that divides a casual patio, which is peppered with potted palms, simple wood tables, and flickering oil lamps. Inside, the space is awash in earthy tones, with rust-colored walls and painted concrete floors. The building is circular, and the interior space seems to flow, with no harsh corners and gentle, curved lines. It is a space where time slows, letting the pleasures of the table play out in unhurried celebration.
A yoga mosaic weaves throughout the décor, a nod to the hobby that both Stefano and Roberta practice. The vibe throughout the space is warm and welcoming; even when bustling with patrons, the space suggests an air of calm. Much of the interior was designed and executed by Stefano himself, who in addition to his culinary talents boasts an interior design degree and an eye for detail. The chairs and tables were custom designed and made in Indonesia; the walls were hand-painted; and the back of the house was designed to allow for a semi-open kitchen and a wood-burning stove.
The seating options are varied and accommodating. In addition to the front patio and the main dining room, a covered side patio offers a charming outdoor space that is especially accommodating to large parties. A small bar inside the dining room offers another seating option, for single diners or couples looking for a casual meal. Over the course of an evening, the clientele is as varied as the seating, with couples, families, and large groups of friends all chatting away happily within the warm space.
When we ourselves are settled in, my attention turns first to the wine list, which is covered in a lively lime-green batik cloth with golden embroidered letters spelling out "vino." Inside the colorful cover, the pages are just as lively, with a selection of 70 labels that leans mostly Italian and mostly red. The list is compiled by Roberta and the restaurant’s manager and, as of January 2008, third partner, Francesca. Their aim is to offer a completely unique selection of bottles that are not widely available in stores. "If we find one in a store, we take it off the list," Francesca explains. Perhaps the best feature of this approach is the wines by the glass, a varied, unique, and partly rotating selection that includes many small-production Italian wines made from lesser-known grapes. My eye is drawn to the Sannino Falanghina Pompeiano, a white wine made from Falanghina grapes grown on volcanic rock. The wine is crisp with an underlying minerality that cuts through its rich, creamy backbone.
The menu, like the wine list, is clothed in lime-green cloth, lending a homey touch to the act of flipping through the selection. And what a delight it is to flip through—page after page is enticing and varied, making it difficult to select among the traditional antipasti, vibrant salads, and an absolutely stunning array of pastas and wood-fired pizzas.
Frittura Mista di Pesce is a popular starter, and an excellent way to begin the meal. A tangle of flash-fried seafood is piled on a plate: curly calamari, plump pink shrimp, small pieces of sea bass and salmon, and julienned zucchini, all accompanied by a saucer of vibrant red marinara sauce. The quality is evident—the seafood is barely coated, and the thin, crispy layer accentuates, rather than overshadows their fresh, pure flavors. Salmon is moist and succulent; shrimp are sweet and tender. The calamari’s textured tentacles embrace the warm, tangy sauce, while the succulent sea bass proves best with just a quick squirt of lemon. Each bite is both playful and elegant, whetting the appetite for more.
As if on cue, a basket of complimentary house-made olive bread and Tuscan-style flatbread, or schiacciata, arrives on the table. The schiacciata is an olive-oil-brushed stretch of pizza dough, adorned with fresh rosemary and coarse salt and baked in the wood-fired oven. The triangles are like a cross between a cracker and a pita, boasting a hint of crispness, an airy texture, and a purity that only fresh-baked bread can boast. It is rustic and comforting at once.
The flat bread hints at the quality of the pizzas, as the dough serves as the base for each of the 32 pizzas on the menu. All are baked in the wood-fired oven in traditional Neapolitan style, although the varieties run the gamut in flavors and ingredients, the combinations a mixture of traditional and inventive. I’m tempted by pies such as the Genovese, featuring pesto, Pecorino Romano, and parmesan; and the Salmone Affumicato, with smoked salmon, brie, and basil. But Pizza will have to wait for another visit—tonight we’re enticed by the fresh, house-made pastas.
The Gnocchi allo Zafferano e Aparagi is a burst of brilliant sunshine in a clear sky; a swath of bright paint on a pale canvas. Plump potato pillows sit on a white triangular plate, blanketed by a bright saffron sauce the color of yellow mustard. It is playful and shocking, perhaps the brightest color I've seen on a plate. Despite its bold color, the flavors prove subtle, the gentle hint of saffron mingling with the sweetness of cream, and the house-made gnocchi boasting a delightfully pillowy texture that dissolves on the tongue. A dusting of parmesan lends a salty kick, while slivers of sliced asparagus root the dish with their grassy, earthy flavor. It is such as simple, elegant dish, yet one that resonates with subtle complexity.
Ravioli are also made in-house, and Stefano offers a different ravioli dish daily. On the day of our visit, it is a rich, savory Beef Ravioli with Porcini Mushroom Sauce. Thick, wide pockets of beef and ricotta hide beneath a tangle of sliced porcini mushrooms and a blanket of thin, buttery sauce, tinted red by a hint of tomato. The dish is rich and flavorful, a creative twist on ravioli that veers closer to the full, savory flavors of lasagna or Bolognese. The butteriness of the sauce marries with the earthy tang of the mushrooms, perfectly resonating against the sweet beef and silky pasta. This is a dish that is both luxurious and decadent.
While the pasta dishes are satisfying enough to serve as a meal, the entrée courses are hard to pass up. Saltimbocca alla Romana features two thin, round veal medallions hiding under flavorful strata: crisp sage leaves, thinly sliced prosciutto de Parma, melted Fontina cheese, and finally, a rich, golden white wine and sage sauce. True to its name, the dish jumps in the mouth, delighting the palate as resonant sage, sharply cured meet, creamy melted cheese, and moist, tender veal beautifully harmonize. The sauce is light and tangy—Stefano opts to incorporate white wine over the traditional boldly flavored Marsala—and compliments, rather than overpowers, the veal.
We have the pleasure of sampling the Sea Bass with Cherry Tomatoes and Mussels, a special that features an eminently fresh, perfectly moist piece of sea bass paired with plump, salty mussels. The fish commands the plate, resting beneath a playful medley of sliced cherry tomatoes, thick slivers of garlic, and fresh herbs, surrounded by a pool of light, tomato broth. It is a dish that is cooked to perfection, the fish flaking apart with just the touch of a fork, the mussels lending a burst of salty sea essence. Each bite seems simple and unpretentious, a rustic homage to subtle flavors and quality ingredients.
Dessert is a collection of Italian regional favorites, including the Salame al Cioccolato, a playful treat that takes the ubiquitous salami form and turns it sweet. The traditional Northern Italian creation begins with dough made from chocolate and crushed biscuits, mixed with eggs and rum and formed into a long cylindrical form. The crushed biscuits remain as specks in the chocolate form, and when sliced into rounds the dessert playfully resembles the savory, speckled charcuterie. The dense slices are flavorful, but just barely sweet, making them the perfect accompaniment to a cloyingly sweet scoop of imported vanilla ice cream.
When the meal is finished, it is hard to get up from our seats. The space is delightful and over the course of the meal we have begun to feel at home. Stefano and Roberta truly welcome guests into their family, treating them like close friends for a few hours at a time. For a taste of Italian hospitality and traditional regional Italian cuisine, there is no better spot in Pacific Beach than Caffe Bella Italia.