Oh, the bright lights of Broadway! Our very own Broadway, that is, which restaurateurs like to be near, if not quite on. Two most enjoyable places that give every evidence of having been designed for locals, Operacaffe and Illume Bistro, have recently opened, just south of Broadway in the Gaslamp Quarter and just to the north in Little Italy.
When complimented on the homey feel of his comfortable, low-key Operacaffe on Fourth Avenue, co-chef/ proprietor Roberto Bernardino threw his arms wide and nearly shouted, “This is a new restaurant, just for San Diego residents. No tourists!” And although Bernardino will tell you his English is limited, he pressed on. “This is run by my family to make locals welcome——no tourists!”
To be sure, there is no litmus test to determine who’s from Point Loma and who’s from the oilfields of Oklahoma. But Operacaffe is one of a few joyful downtown nooks——such as Café Chloe, Jsix and Cowboy Star ——where San Diegans won’t be asked “What convention are you with?” by servers who assume all guests hail from elsewhere. The location particularly recommends it to Balboa Theatre patrons, and if you’ve been searching for an informal downtown lunch spot with marvelous cuisine, this is it. Caught on a busy night, the place will be noisy but fun. The lights hung high above (the ceiling must be at least 20 feet up) burn rather too brightly on an antique-brick wall, the open kitchen and heavy wooden tables that could have handled Medici feasts.
As Bernardino says, Operacaffe is a family affair. His wife, Patrizia Branchi, joins him in the kitchen; in the 1980s, the couple owned a restaurant in Florence and until recently were partners in the Gas lamp’s well-regarded La Strada. Daughter Kika waits tables with such good humor that guests themselves begin to feel like family members.
Bernardino and Branchi cook a bill of fare so authentically Italian it may baffle locals who automatically order fettuccine Bolognese and a glass of Chianti without consulting the menu. Here, the unusual is typical, with such appetizers as the piramide of polenta dressed with ham, porcini mushrooms and pungent Gorgonzola sauce ($7.95) and steak tartare with chives and a one-of=a-kind bacon sabayon, an egg-yolk–based sauce ($8.95).
Good Italian cooks seem to effortlessly distill concentrated, riveting effects from one or two principal flavorings, a gift that glows in pastas like penne speperina ($11.95), an uncomplicated marvel of macaroni with creamy mascarpone, crumbles of spicy Italian sausage and a kicky hit of fresh mint. Since nobody in town serves anything like this (why not?), a meal at Operacaffe is virtually mandatory for those eager to experience a plate-scraping marriage of sublime flavors and textures.
There’s no predicting just what the basket will contain, but the day’s appetite-threatening, warm-from-the-oven bread may be tender, finger-shaped rolls or crusty slices or miniature semolina rolls. Given that Operacaffe knows dough——the pizzas are thin, brittle and rather elegant——try the I Coccoli ($8.95), irresistible pillows of fried pizza dough flavored with stracchino cheese and draped with the sweetest, pinkest prosciutto. Compose a delightful shared dinner by continuing with the Patrizia salad ($8.95) of greens with crisp hearts of palm, buttery avocado and musky cheeses, and then a main course of ossobuchini Milanese ($21.95), a locally unique preparation of long-braised, remarkably succulent baby veal shanks served with saffron risotto.
Patrizia claims her tiramisu ($5.95) triumphs over all others, and the speed with which an order disappears supports her claim.
Good lists of daily specials may include penne portofino, a subtle toss of al dente pasta, creamy tomato sauce and ultra-tender, vodka-flamed freshwater shrimp ($18.95). Porcini-stuffed ravioli, sparingly coated with a lovely version of sauce Bolognese ($14.95), likewise sing with flavor.
Operacaffe serves lunch and dinner daily at 835 Fourth Avenue in San Diego. For reservations, call 619-685-4848.
Related articles: Olivetto Café, Tender Greens and Pasquale Del Mar.