Nestled among the historic buildings of the former Naval Training Center in Point Loma is a restaurant that defies categorization. Steeped in history, it is decidedly contemporary; yet, amid its modern ambiance, its dishes are rooted in tradition. It offers the gracious, professional service of a fine-dining restaurant, yet with a welcoming undertone that is usually only displayed in private homes. And then there’s the food—drawing on the traditions and flavors of Italy and the clean, fresh aesthetic of Asian cuisine, it is truly one of a kind. To defy boundaries, to integrate a myriad of influences into a single, harmonious concept—this is the very core of Solare Ristorante and Lounge.
The restaurant was destined to be unique. Four years in the making, it opened in early 2008 as the sole restaurant in the historic NTC Promenade, a cultural center home to various non-profits, art galleries, and educational organizations. Co-owners and husband-and-wife Stefano Ceresoli and Roberta Ruffini, who also own Caffe Bella Italia in Pacific Beach, were selected by the NTC Foundation to bring a passionate, family-run restaurant to the cultural center.
Located in an old Spanish-revival building, the restaurant seems both grand and intimate, awash in a down-to-earth elegance that is both stunning and comfortable. The historic building’s second-story ceilings and oversized windows naturally make the room feel airy and light, a feeling continued after sunset by oversized pendant lamps that emit a soft glow. The décor is guided by a natural, yoga-inspired aesthetic, with golden walls, sheer curtains, and gorgeous hardwood floors. But the most stunning feature is the furniture—designed by Stefano and commissioned in Bali, the custom-crafted teak tables and curvy, craftsman-inspired chairs fill the dining room with a whimsical elegance.
The center of the space consists of a three-walled, floor-to-ceiling tower of wine, which serves as a backdrop to the host stand and a room divider between dining room and lounge. Inside the tower is the most charming space of the restaurant—a tiny "wine room" set with just one table. A meal here is intimate and romantic, and may well be the most unique private table in the city.
Aside from the wine room, Solare boasts several seating options. An outdoor patio is casual and breezy, linen-clothed tables sheltered by a second-story overhang. The lounge is relaxed, with plush leather couches and oversized bar tables. The dining room is the most formal, but remains casual with placemats instead of linens and an open kitchen whose energy mingles with the lively buzz of conversation. A private room is available for parties of 16 to 24, and a chef's table—a counter against the glass window of a second kitchen—allows two to three guests to indulge in a meal prepared before their own eyes.
The kitchen is headed by Executive Chef Mark Pelliccia and Chef/Owner Stefano Ceresoli, who together bring a refreshing honesty to seasonal Italian- and Asian-inspired cuisine. Their experience is a unique dichotomy of old world and new: Stefano hails from Milan, but has been serving Italian cuisine in San Diego for well over a decade; Mark grew up in San Diego, but spent the past 15 years in Italy’s culinary-rich Liguria (he returned stateside for his family and decided to stay once he discovered Solare).
A dining experience here is a series of captivating details that tantalize the senses. Cocktails seem a natural beginning, with deftly prepared drinks featuring hand-squeezed juices and inventive combinations such as the Mandarum, featuring fresh mandarin orange juice and muddled basil blended with Cointreau and rum and garnished with kumquats.
The mid-sized wine list is intriguing and varied, with an unsurprising emphasis on Italy. The carefully selected collection includes both reasonable and rare, with a well-represented selection of library Chiantis, Barolos, and Barbarescos and a handful of lesser-seen wines such as Roero Arneis and Gattinara . The by-the-glass selection includes a handful of high-end wines as well as more affordable, but still quality selections, such as a $10 Belguardo Super Tuscan from Marchesi Mazzei.
The menu is short and concise, but holds a wonderfully far-reaching array of flavors that boast a comforting balance of familiar and new. While the restaurant's theme is a blending of Asian and Italian, the dishes are hardly fusion cuisine. Instead the menu seems inspired by Italian regional specialties, tapping into the exquisite potential of the Mediterranean region. When Asian ingredients do surface, they are integrated so well that the dishes still seem quintessentially Italian.
Take the Sea Bream Carpaccio with Lychee Salad. Three thick slices of pale, translucent sea bream lay draped across a plate, drizzled with olive oil and nearly covered with a mélange of sliced lychee fruit, micro greens, flower petals, and mandarin orange pieces. The textured dish looks like a splash frozen in time, exploding from the pale white plate in a moment of vibrant energy. A bite is real, unadorned, capturing a subtle taste of the sea, the lychee’s nutty sweetness, and tangy citrus note. It is simple and clean yet unique and intriguing—recurring characteristics of Solare's cuisine.
Cappon Magro is quintessentially Italian, although Solare’s version is a deconstruction of the traditional Ligurian dish. Here, components are presented side by side. First is a hexagonal cake made of blended potatoes and cod fish, a soft, pillowy texture encased in a crispy coating of breadcrumbs and parsley. Alongside is a deep purple salad of sliced beets, carrots, and zucchini slivers, boasting a surprisingly tempered flavor, a silky texture, and a bright acidity from a red-wine vinaigrette. An unadorned mussel, clam, and shrimp segue into the last component, a pool of deep-green parsley pesto that resonates with the familiar flavors of lemon, fresh olive oil, parmesan, and garlic. The dish is garnished with grated bottarga—a Mediterranean delicacy of cured, dried tuna roe—which lends a potent and surprising kick to each bite.
Chef Mark's Liguiran influence is seen again in a delicate Farinata, a paper-thin, crepe-like round of baked chick pea dough topped with plump rings of pale white calamari and a medley of diced tomato and green onions. Playful in presentation, a forkful proves elegant and delicate, the thin dough lending a silky luxury to the tender rings. It is unique and intriguing in both texture and flavor.
When it’s time to move on from the appetizers, the menu continues to bring delightful surprises. Ofelle are luxurious and decadent, plump round gnocchi dumplings whose centers are filled with savory ground sausage. The perfectly formed medallions are blanketed by a shiny, translucent brown butter sauce and draped with large leaves of wilted sage. A graciously curved parmesan crisp stands between forms, while a heady aroma of butter rises from the plate, enticing with promises of richness. The gnocchi are silky and viscous, the ravioli-like forms bursting with deeply resonant flavor. Each supple bite brings the feisty flavors of sage and sausage met with a hint of vibrant acidity from the sauce. Simultaneously elegant and playful, it is an absolutely decadent dish.
Spaghetti with arugula, tomatoes, and oyster mushrooms is designed as a vegetarian option and offers a light, satisfying main course. Perfect on a hot summer's day, the dish bursts with fresh, clean flavor. Thick ribbons of spaghetti intertwine with thick chunks of tomato, narrow strips of arugula, and poached oyster mushrooms. A fresh and simple olive oil completes the dish, letting the natural sweetness of in-season tomatoes, the peppery arugula, and the tender, meaty mushrooms work to flavor each forkful. It pays homage to fresh ingredients and simple preparations, and is executed perfectly.
The Rack of Lamb is a stunning presentation, hearty and comforting. Gently curved ribs rest on an upturned triangle of Gorgonzola polenta cake, the meat rooted in a bed of mashed potatoes and surrounded by a deep brown porcini mushroom sauce. Sliced asparagus and baby carrots are scattered around the mashed potato bed like confetti, lending a burst of color to the plate. The polenta cake is a treat, the cornmeal spun into an airy, cake-like consistency, offering only the slightest hint of gorgonzola's presence. The mushroom sauce is a surprise, studded with tender mushrooms that threaten to be more savory than the lamb itself. But one bite of the lamb reveals its quality, the slight hint of grassiness fading to a delicate sweetness.
Despite his mastery of regional Italian flavors and international ingredients, pastries are Chef Mark's passion. Dessert at Solare allows him to shine, with creative, house-made preparations that offer guests a giddy, exciting conclusion. The Vanilla and Meringue Sphere is a quintessential indication of his creative talent. A wide flat plate holds a perfect white sphere coated in crushed meringues; it wittily resembles a powdery snowball. The dish is delivered with a smile, as the innocent looking form holds a surprise inside. The round form splits easily, releasing a thick, red raspberry sauce that gushes from a hollow center. The ball itself is formed of sweet vanilla mousse, a simple concoction of egg whites and cream. To spin such pleasure from so few ingredients seems magical—each milky spoonful boasts a sensual texture yet a taste that is innocent and pure. Even after a large meal, it is near impossible to resist finishing.
The last sweet spoonful is the perfect conclusion to a Solare experience. Simple and clean yet with a hint of intrigue, it is a refreshing respite, a decadent pause before returning to reality. Which is just what a meal at Solare proves to be.