From the rustic stone exterior to the expansive and colorful interior, Little Italy’s hidden treasure, La Villa Restaurant & Bar, blends urban and rural life together seamlessly. Seated at wooden tables, reminiscent of the farmers’ tables in years past, diners enjoy fresh, sustainable Italian delights. La Villa’s seasonal menu emphasizes the “farm to table” concept by incorporating neighborhood farmers’ products and locally caught seafood in every dish. From the handmade mozzarella found on the Naples inspired pizzas, to the oysters, so fresh that the remnant flavors of the ocean are still present, La Villa pleases the palate time after time. Pasta lovers fawn over specialties like the Smoked Ricotta Pumpkin Ravioli, served with Toasted Oats, Parsnip Puree, Pomegranate, and Beech Mushrooms, and on warm San Diego days, guests can relax under the sun, surrounded by a brightly colored mural on the outside patio and bar. For a festive and sophisticated night out, stray from the ordinary, and step into La Villa Restaurant & Bar.Read More ...
La Villa Restaurant & Bar is a hidden treasure, tucked away in the scenic Downtown neighborhood of Little Italy. Located at 1646 India Street, this rustic Italian restaurant flourishes alongside the charming Italian retail shops, restaurants, and art galleries that make Little Italy so special. On our way to dinner, my dining companion and I discuss our love affair with authentic Italian cuisine and our excitement to experience all that La Villa has to offer.
La Villa, known for its fusion of traditional Italian flavors with modern California cuisine, uses ingredients sourced from local farmers and fisherman. From Naples-style wood fire pizzas made with homemade mozzarella cheese, to pastas and contemporary seafood items, La Villa unifies old world charm with modern sophistication. Stepping outside into the blustery autumn evening, we begin our short stride to the restaurant eagerly awaiting the night to come.
Executive Chef Chris O'Donnell utilizes local, seasonal ingredients in a menu that is constantly evolving to reveal his latest culinary credo. Owners Salvatore and Daniela Caniglia and Antonio Mastellone opened La Villa in September of 2011, with a farm-to-table philosophy in mind. The Caniglia’s connected over a love for food from the beginning of their relationship, living briefly with Salvatore’s family in Europe before opening their first restaurant together. Antonio, owner of the popular Arrivederci restaurant in Hillcrest, grew up in the Italian seaside town of Sorrento where he began his culinary vocation working at his parent’s trattoria.
This dynamic team is devoted to bringing the essence of Italy to San Diego; they are the same owners behind the highly regarded Buon Appetito, The Market by Buon Appetito, the Sogno Di Vino wine bar, Tazza D’Oro coffee shop, and Trattoria I Trulli. La Villa is a grand culmination of these past successes and years of travel, and approaching the front of the restaurant, it’s clear that this restaurant was designed to impress.
As we walk up to the entrance, I am captured by the beautiful exterior stone that encases the walls and doorway. We are kindly greeted by hostess Marilia, who guides us past the black gates and dark wood doors to our table in front. We are seated in a cozy nook situated against the windows with charming views of the locals enjoying their evening strolls. The lighting is slightly dim and the music is soft, creating an ideal ambience for a romantic date or intimate dinner conversation.
To my right, a massive gold picture frame is suspended from the ceiling. The impact is alluring; it is a smooth, modern way to break up the space while placing emphasis on the beautiful interior decor. Several antique keys and locks straight ahead on the adjacent wall bring an old world feel to the space, and behind me, exposed bricks add a rugged texture to the otherwise smooth walls.
Dane, our server for the evening, approaches us and invites us to take a tour of the restaurant. He is enthusiastic and incredibly friendly, giving us detailed pointers regarding each aspect of La Villa. We begin in the main dining area at the front of the restaurant. Couples, groups of friends, and a family with two small children are enjoying their dinners as we look about. This space is sophisticated yet relaxed, with high ceilings, rich wooden beams and a chic full bar with clear glass cabinets overhead.
The walls are festooned in a natural, yellow shade with splashes of stone accents. There is a seamless unity of traditional and modern design that flows throughout the room. The tables are rustic wood with elegant white linen napkins, juxtaposed by sleek, metal chairs. Overhead, there are round lamps made of a white canvas, ornamented with black images of crystal chandeliers. The large side wall features several oil portraits of women wistfully looking off into the distance. Dane explains that about every month or so, the restaurant features artwork created by a selected local artist.
Making our way to the back patio, I am immediately drawn in by the charming rod iron chairs and impressionist mural that extends along the wall. The painting is an Italian pastoral scene with rolling hills, country homes, and a cathedral church. Hand-painted quotes are scattered throughout, with tender and welcoming lines like “this looks like a nice place to share a memory”. This cozy area would be an ideal setting for a large party or banquet. To the left, the main kitchen sits in its own separate building. Inside, guests can sit at the chef’s table for a first-class view of the kitchen alive and bustling.
Rounding the corner past several appealing pastry desserts, we are escorted out of the main kitchen area to a separate room comprising the lovely wood fired oven. “The oven is currently at about 906 degrees,” Dane informs us, the intense heat enveloping us as we enter the room. He goes on to enlighten us that the pizza dough is made from imported ingredients from the Naples region of Italy, and the mozzarella is made in-house. Just outside, the patio is one of the most striking vicinities of the restaurant. It is encapsulated by a tall rod iron gate and stunning stone in natural tan, russet, and grey hues, pleasantly reminiscent of an earlier time. Fountains, sculptures, and small potted plants bring the European café aesthetic full circle for a truly magical scene. There is also a plush outdoor couch where guests can relax, converse, and sip a glass of fine wine. Several large heaters provide an abundance of warmth to conquer the chilly night air. With seating to accommodate approximately 80 guests, the terrace is a lovely arena to host any special occasion.
After our delightful tour, a promising Italian meal is beckoning us to take our seats. The lights are dimmed just a little more, setting the mood for an intimate evening. The main dinner menu is comprised of starters, salads, pastas, pizzas, and entrees. Starters are made up of three distinct groups: Raw, Appetizers, and Vegetables. From the Raw section, uncooked seafood delights are fresh at hand. Appetizers include soups, cheeses, salumis, small meat dishes, and cooked seafood. Under Vegetables, a few starters like the Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Tuscan Cauliflower are offered.
There are also several organic salad options available with a medley of local ingredients. For those in the mood for pasta, patrons will delight in both authentic Italian and California-inspired options, from Cavatelli Pomodoro (garlic, crushed tomato, parsley, and parmesan) to Sweet Potato Gnocchi (crispy duck, pumpkin, fresh chickpea, wild spinach, and sage). The numerous Neapolitan-style thin crust pizzas, from the timeless Margherita to Quattro Stagioni (speck ham, artichokes, olives, and mushrooms) sound especially appetizing. Entrees are comprised of a handful of poultry, beef, and seafood concepts, like the Half Jidori Chicken Under Brick and the Cast-Iron Roasted Salmon.
The lunch menu features many of the same starters, appetizers, salads, and pizzas that can be found on the dinner menu, in addition to several sandwiches for entrees. The wine menu boasts almost 100 international bottles, half of which are from Italy. There is a total of 9 red and 9 white wines available by the glass, from a range of $8 to $18. Varietals include sparkling rose, pinot grigio, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chianti, pinot noir, merlot, and super tuscan, among others. Wines are available from a multitude of countries across the continents, from France, Argentina, multiple regions of Italy, and back to Napa, California. In addition to specialty cocktails, like the Maple Old Fashion and Skinny Margarita, the bar offers five draft beers and twelve bottled beers from local and international breweries. Some of the native San Diego microbreweries featured are Mission Brewery, Stone Brewing Company, Port Brewing Company, and Ale Smith Brewing Company.
La Villa did not overlook dessert. Several sweet treats are offered like the Salted Chocolate Mousse and Spiced Chai Panna Cotta (cinnamon-honey sauce, cardamom vanilla cracker, caramelized banana, and nutella powder.) From espresso to blackberry, gelatos and sorbets have my sweet tooth aching for a taste. I am further enticed by the lengthy list of international dessert wines, featuring late harvest, fortified wines, and grappa like the Grappi Chocolate and Poli Pear.
Before the meal commences, Dane suggests an excellent crisp white wine, Fontezoppa Verdicchio from the Marche region, to accompany our first appetizer. With recommendation from the chefs, we begin our meal with the Amberjack Crudo which hastily arrives and is absolutely mouthwatering. This dish features “crudo” (raw) slices of yellowtail amberjack with a harmonious medley of yuzu geele, Asian pear, micro cilantro, pickled scallions, and compressed cucumber. It is presented on a long, white dish, with the cuts of fish separated from the accompaniments in neat parallel lines. The fruity, bite-sized squares of yuzu geele and the thinly sliced Asian pear provide a refreshing twist to the subtle notes of the sea.
Our second appetizer, The Crispy Soft Shell Crab, is suggested by Dane and does not disappoint. It is served with organic vegetables, green goddess, and lemon-caper remoulade. It arrives crispy, plump, and piled high on the plate, with an artful smear of the tart green goddess underneath. The remoulade, in a great dollop on the crest of the crab, has a wonderful tang that was simply destined for this dish. The citrus notes of the wine are an excellent complement to this seafood lover’s paradise.
Next, the Suzie’s Farms Radish & Avocado Salad (Chef’s favorite) arrives with a rejuvenating combination of citrus, pistachio, and goat cheese. The salad is arranged in a delicate mound at the center of plate with vibrant greenery and a zing of citrus juices. The generous cuts of avocado and sprinkles of goat cheese are soft and earthy, balanced by each crisp crunch of radish. Every ingredient is exceedingly fresh, straight from the farm to my fork.
Dane pairs our next dishes with a glass of Pian dell’Olmo, a Super Tuscan blend, which he describes as an excellent entry-level red wine. After catching a glimpse of the spectacular wood fired oven, we are geared up to get a taste of pizza. With the recommendation of the restaurant, The Spicy Calabrese Salumi Pizza arrives warm from the wood fired oven, crafted with Anaheim chili, goat cheese, leeks, and rapini. The dough is cooked to a perfect crisp with hints of smoke pairing nicely with the oak finish of the wine. The wild, bitter taste of rapini is a nice accent to the tart goat cheese. The Calabrese is zesty and warm, with just the right amount of spice to amplify this savory pizza.
Following the pizza, The Smoked Ricotta Enriched Pumpkin Ravioli is a creamy and festive fall treat. With toasted oats, parsnip puree, pomegranate, and beech mushrooms, this dish has a sweet taste suggestive of maple syrup and holiday cheer. The soft mushrooms have a mild nutty flavor that I instantly adore. Dane returns to our table as his shift ends to bid us goodnight, with Lucas stepping in to take his place for the remainder of our meal.
For the main event, the New York Strip Steak is artfully presented in a sea of crimson demi-glaze. On top rests a delectable quail egg and organic roasted vegetables. The aroma is irresistible. Lucas encourages us to break the over-easy egg and mix it into the glaze for a well-rounded bite. The steak is cooked to a perfect medium rare showcasing a warm, pink center with hints of red and a delicious char flavor on the outside.
While patiently waiting on dessert, Event Coordinator Roberta Mendonca stops in and chats with us before having dinner with her family. With all of the friendly faces at La Villa, it is easy to feel welcome and completely at ease. Although we are full, we indulge in two luscious dessert items. The first, Pistachio Cake, comes with Carrot Gelato, Barnea Olive Oil Caramel, and Buttermilk Mousse. The cake comprises a rich, nutty flavor and is perfectly moist. In contrast, the Carrot Gelato is rejuvenating and light, served in an ice cold scoop of creamy sweetness. It tastes like spring.
The Valrhona Chocolate Cake Two Ways: Chocolate Layer Cake and Liquid Center Chocolate Ganache Cake are nestled side by side on their plate. I gently slice into the latter and a warm stream of liquid chocolate trickles from the center. It is chocolate heaven. The Chocolate Layer Cake is a melodious blend of ultra sweet layers, and sheets of rich, bitter dark chocolate. After a gratifying dinner and dessert, we linger for some time to people watch and finish our conversation.
As we take our leave, Roberta gets up from her table to give us each a hug and an invitation to return. It is this gracious hospitality that distinguishes La Villa from other establishments in San Diego. With a burst of character and flavor, La Villa has surpassed our expectations for a delicious night-time meal. Fully satisfied, we brace ourselves for the low outside temperatures and reluctantly head for the door. On our way out, Marilia slips us two fruit candies and bids us an amiable farewell. This unique dining destination has a formula that leaves me yearning for more: rustic elegance, top-notch service, prime cuisine, and a touch of that warm, unmistakable feeling of home.
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We had a fantastic meal at La Villa. The wait staff was outstanding, our waiter allowed us to space our meal out into 3 shared courses. The food was wonderful, we started with Crispy Shrimp followed by Meat Lovers pizza and finished off with regtangular ravioli with squash blossoms and pesto. The portion sizes were perfect to be shared between 2 people. We had a nice bottle of red wine as well. We sat in the outdoor patio area and the ambiance was an excellent representation of Little Italy. I'd recommend this restaurant to anyone and everyone.