Ciao, Venice! Welcome to the Neighborhood

San Diego Magazine

When the Golden Triangle’s long-running Tutto Mare quietly closed about a year ago, the new Venice Ristorante & Wine Bar just as quietly took its place. Despite its origins in Colorado, Venice Ristorante & Wine Bar is Italian to the core: One owner hails from Sicily, while the other (who’s also executive chef) is from Rome.

The space is comfortable and spacious, with one of the most appealing patios around, and while the service needs burnishing, the fare is fantastico. Prices are palatable (especially in comparison to posh destinations nearby), with plenty of entrées in the $14 to $18 range.

Business partners Christian Delle Fave and Allessandro Carollo have worked together for seven years, developing recipes and opening three places in Denver before this endeavor. The lengthy menu boasts five raviolis and three gnocchis (made in-house), veal and steak in various cuts, two risotto dishes and numerous variations on old standbys like saltimbocca alla romana and spaghetti pomodoro.

“Everyone goes in Italian restaurants and sees simple spaghetti and meatballs or sausage,” says executive chef Delle Fave. “We try to give a little step up from the traditional with a twist of the modern.”

He can say that again.

The chef’s signature duck breast ($17), plump as a down pillow and tender as a lullaby, would fly in any designer bistro. Quickly seared, nestled in a deeply flavored sauce of wine and assorted mushrooms, then topped with pistachios and foie gras, this bird’s the word on upscale dining.

So’s the polenta piazza San Marco ($11), an Italianate stir-fry of abundant shrimp, local mussels, clams and calamari prepared with olive oil, fish stock and a splash of reduced balsamic vinegar. Simple yet spectacular, it’s ample for lunch or a light dinner. Bravo, too, for the hand-shaped ravioli, filled with puréed butternut squash and walnuts and sauced with browned sage butter and fried sage leaves ($11).

Two chicken entrées——one topped with ricotta, fontina and spinach; the other paired with a gorgeous gorgonzola-mushroom sauce and grilled artichokes ($14 each)——also elevate the menu beyond the expected. They’re finished in the wood-burning oven (as is the duck breast) to impart a subtle hint of smoke. With entrées, there’s a choice of side dishes. We’ll vouch for both the sage-scented Tuscan white beans and the penne pomodoro, given a woodsy intensity by roasting the tomatoes for the sauce.

On the more conventional side, linguine served with clams ($14) or prawns ($15) is a standout. You’ll get plenty of seafood——we counted a baker’s dozen good-size clams in one, seven succulent jumbo shrimp in the other——along with al dente pasta and a sure hand with the garlic. And what’s the secret to the outstanding calamari fritti ($8) here? The squid is soaked in milk for 12 hours for tenderness, then fried with the barest dusting of seasoned flour. Presto: delicate, delicious calamari.

We prefer firmer gnocchi, but there’s no arguing this version, tossed with startlingly hot sausage and tempered by tomato cream, is admirable ($11). So are the spinach and arugula salads——each a wallet-sparing $6 for a dinnersize serving——judiciously seasoned and lightly dressed, though we would have liked a salad dubbed “insalata di rucolo e pomodori” to sport more than two small pieces of pomodori.

For dessert (all choices priced at $6), skip the profiteroles——reminiscent of chilled, frosted cream puffs——in favor of tiramisu.

Athough food prices are proletarian, the vast wine selection (housed in a dramatic glass cellar available for special chef’s dinners) caters to the trust-fund crowd. Exciting as it is to see page after page of legendary labels like 1986 Sassicaia ($999) and ’97 Ornellaia ($850)——along with a terrific selection of Brunellos, California Cabernets and other trea sures—— most of us working-class-wage slaves just want a decent $30 or $40 bottle. Rummage through the offerings from lesser-known regions of Italy, and you’ll find some. Or come for Happy Hour, when wines by the glass go for $6.

Venice during Happy Hour (which lasts all night) may be the happiest place on Earth for foodies on a budget. Smaller versions of a dozen dishes from the regular menu go for $4.25 apiece; the mood is upbeat, and why battle the freeways when you can savor an early dinner first?

The restaurant draws a mix of local workers and folks from nearby hotels, and boasts capacious booths and well-spaced tables. Carpeted floors and buffered ceilings keep the lovely interior relatively quiet, conversation- wise, and soft big-band tunes and jazz generally make for an unobtrusive background. (We were amused that upon closer listening, one “opera” tune turned out to be a fully orchestrated, Italian version of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”)

Polished as the cuisine is, table service ranges from listless-but-acceptable to faintly surreal. One evening, our server continually inquired of me, “And for m’lady?” Renaissance Faire, yes; fine dining room, absolutely not.

Still, watching this gifted chef and his team move skillfully around their gleaming open kitchen is a pleasure, and savoring their updated, well-prepared Italian specialties is a delight. With Venice, the Golden Triangle has gained some extra sparkle.

Venice Ristorante & Wine Bar serves lunch Monday-Friday and dinner Monday-Saturday at 4365 Executive Drive, Golden Triangle, 858-597-1188.

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