New restaurants have a short shelf life in Hillcrest. As the California cuisine fad of the last decade begins to die down, we see promising restaurants, like Bite, closing up their doors. The spurious tastes of local foodies gives establishments a boom-and-bust cycle. To succeed, it takes a special blend of characteristics, a unique style and menu, kitschy fun decor, and a celebration of the diversity that makes Hillcrest one of the best places in all of San Diego to live.
Against this backdrop, it may seem strange for a new restaurant to open next door to a more established one with similar culinary stylings. Yet in November 2009, Buonissimo2 opened its doors at 1027 University Avenue. While such business decisions are uncommon, they are not unheard of. Fiji Yogurt, across University from Buonissimo2, made a similar move in 2008. In 2010 Yog-Art boarded up its door, while upstart Fiji continues to thrive.
Buonissimo's entrance is just a few hundred feet away from Taste of Italy. Taste of Italy is an established San Diego chain restaurant with four locations along with two other restaurants, Etna's and Vessuvio's. Both offering Italian fare, the restaurants look like a David and Goliath battle, with small upstart Buonissimo2 squaring off against the local corporate giant.
The original Buonissimo is a family restaurant. Located in the countryside of the Canavese region outside Turin, Italy, the Marinelli family opened it's doors in 1968. The son, Sergio, grew up and took over the family business in Italy. An entrepreneur, he began an advertising firm, Errebi, and it was there that he met his partner in life and business, Daria Pisterna. Their son came to San Diego as a student, where he became friends with another Italian student, Marco Zannoni who was studying English after finishing an associate's degree in business and marketing.
In Italy, Buonissimo featured unique twists on traditional cuisine. Coming to America, Sergio and Daria wanted to try something different here. Marco explains, "In Italy, everyone can cook, so at home they want something new. Here, we wanted to do something different, and really share our traditional culture and food."
They wanted to create an inviting design that allowed people to have an authentic cultural experience that shared the warmth of the people and traditions back home. They decided to use a vintage theme, choosing rustic Italian food and decor from the 1960's. All the furniture is imported from Italy and the mix of outdoor aged wood tables and chairs are antique 1960's pieces.
The main room's walls are covered with period accurate signs giving it a quirky flare; with mounted chairs hanging off the wall and records, hats, a typewriter, and a mix of other decorations making the front feel like an Italian Corvette diner. Towards the back, mid-century telephones, radios, lamps, and a stove completes the look while an old TV plays black and white movies in a corner. The wooden enclosed back patio surrounded by real and faux plants; large and spaciously placed tables create a comfortable atmosphere for friends, family, and good conversation on any afternoon or summer evening.
Little Pinocchio figures sit at each tables and nestled in the various nooks and crannies around the restaurant. As a classic Italian story, the writer lived in Tuscany, and is celebrated as a cultural icon. Another shared cultural item is the Valdostana style friendship cups, which are specialty bowls with spouts made to be filled with a flambe coffee and alcohol mixture and then passed and drank as a group. With all of the sauces and pastas made from scratch, a better or more authentic Italian meal is hard to find.
In creating the menu, they didn't want to use an American cook, whose taste and style had been influenced by American kitchens and ingredients, so they brought Italian Chef Gianluca Beltramini with them. Insisting on traditional ingredients. Finding authentic products is one of the most difficult tasks for them. They rotate the menu every two to three months to keep it changing and to try more classic but less popular items, letting the diners preferences decide which are kept or changed out.
Served in pans, the portions are large but not overwhelming, and the food is simple yet expertly cooked and seasoned. Their '09 Campogrande Orvieto is the ideal summer wine, with a bright smell that sparkles on the nose. It has an explosive concentration on the tip of the tongue, mellowing out with grapefruit and honey suckle tones, making it a refreshing escape from a hot day.
You can start with the mozzarella di bufala con pomodorini freschi, with vivid plump tomato slices that taste fresh off the vine and thick rich sections of soft mozzarella cheese, all drizzled with a mild basil sauce.
For entrees, their most popular dish is the gnocchi sorrentina. The gnocchi is mixed with large wedges of mozzarella cheese, and as it melts, it gives the thin tomato sauce a creamy body. The gnocchi has a curious texture, both firm and soft, neither overwhelming nor disappearing amidst the sweetness of the sauce. The bite sized pieces make it easy to forget how much you're eating, as the tendency is to get lost in the subtle pepper, garlic, and olive oil undertones, cleaning the plate before you even realize it.
A more traditional dish is the three cartelloni di ricotta e spinaci, loosely rolled pasta filled with spinach and ricotta cheese, and seasoned with fresh italian herbs before being covered in tomato sauce with hints of rosemary behind each bite. For something lighter, try the linguini alle vongole, with clams, garlic, and parsley. This is a much less dense dish, with balanced flavors that make it easy to enjoy without feeling too full after.
No matter what you try, you must finish with their traditional cappuccino and tiramisu. The alternating stacks of creamy chocolate and coffee are surprisingly airy and light, making it a pleasant way to finish off a meal, while the cappuccino is an Italian masterpiece, both in the aesthetics of their design and topping, as well as in the way the foam and espresso are layered to blend in your mouth.
Bringing as much culture as food to the dinning experience, the community has embraced Buonissimo2. In their short time, they have involved themselves with the Hillcrest Business Association, Toast of Hillcrest, the Lighting celebration, and the GSDBA. Opening in a difficult economy, with well known competition on the same block, only time will tell how the restaurant will fare. But if the food and full tables at lunch and dinner are any indication, Buonissimo2 will be with us for a very long time to come.
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