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Backseat dining

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

It was a reservation for two.

“We have the car for you,” said the hostess to our bewilderment, while leading us toward the rear section of the warehouse-style dining room and past a busy, open kitchen.

A cozy dinner table resides inside a 1972 Fiat (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Within moments a shiny red Fiat perched a couple feet off the ground came into view. Its front seats were missing and the side doors were ajar. Implanted inside was our table, an attention-getting perch that sent my tall spouse into a moment of panic.

“How am I going to fit into that thing?” he whispered to me in disbelief as I hopped in ahead of him.

“Just get in,” I insisted. “It’s roomier in here than you think.”

Indeed, we became the umpteenth occupants of this showy, intimate table at Officine Buona Forchetta in Liberty Station, which opened earlier this year as the larger, more playful offshoot to Buona Forchetta in South Park.

Italian transplant and owner, Matteo Cattaneo, teamed up with Mario Casseneri of Bice Ristorante for the venture.

The Nicola pizza (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

They added “officine” to the name, a word that translates to “garage.”

The Fiat, along with a matching red Vespa perched above the bar, blend rather stylishly with potted herbs and antique farming tools strewn throughout the building. There’s also a sizable patio in front and a playground for kids in the back.

Officine’s menu is loaded with pizza choices. They’re baked in a 900-degree oven fueled by white oak. A matching oven also gilded in tiles runs a few hundred degrees lower in temperature. That one is used for roasting meats and vegetables. Both were made in Naples and they’re name-tagged after Cattaneo’s parents: Sergio and Augusta.

Never have I consumed prosecco and anchovy focaccia in the back seat of a car. The tasteful combo marked the first course to our stationary ride that included some excellent dishes served by animated European servers.

Ours was a young, expressive type from France with a rolling accent clearly adopted by his Italian coworkers. His enthusiastic, detailed descriptions of various menu items immediately put us as ease amid customers pointing their phone cameras as us.

Roasted artichokes with fresh herbs (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

A plate of long-stemmed artichoke hearts dressed simply in fresh herbs and olive oil qualified as an appetizer you’d encounter at a roadside trattoria in rural Italy. Slightly brined and kissed by the oven’s woodsy fumes, the dish proved that Italians do wonders with artichokes.

Another appetizer, Burrata Sorrentina, is a special that’s available about twice a week.

Per our waiter’s fervent insistence to try it, we lucked out with a puck of the soft, creamy cheese accented by intensely yellow garlic-saffron sauce splotching the plate as though it were an Alberto Biasi painting. Garnished with pistachio nuts, it put us on a highway to heaven.

Burrata cheese in garlic-saffron sauce (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

So did a stuffed bone-in pork chop we shared. Inside the succulent cut of meat was melty scamorza cheese, offering a buttery tang that falls somewhere between mozzarella and Provolone.

It mingled with crispy pieces of speck (cured pork) as an outstanding brandy-mushroom sauce blanketing the chop cascaded down the sides. The entrée was supported by tenderly roasted potatoes and lightly dressed arugula strewn with Parmesan shavings.

Stuffed pork chop with brandy-mushroom sauce (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Skipping over several fried pizza options — a Neapolitan tradition in which stretched dough is briefly deep fried before it’s sauced, topped and baked — we opted instead for one of the many pies that fast-track into the oven.

Listed as the “Nicola,” it was drizzled appreciably with truffle oil, which gave praise to salty and thinly sliced prosciutto de Parma along with fresh mozzarella mantling plops of non-acidic red sauce.

The flavors were simple and enticing, although the pizza scored higher after we reheated the leftovers on our oven rack the following day, thus resulting in a crispier crust.

A couple pours of feisty Limoncello paired toothsomely to plates of lemon pannacotta and millefoglie (a stacking of super-airy pastry fingers layered with cream). They marked the final destination of a memorable culinary road trip through Officine Buona Forchetta’s whacky and endearing take on Italian dining.

Note: The restaurant is holding a “mortadella festival” through July 23 with an exclusive menu incorporating the celebrated salami of Bologna, Italy. The owners will donate $2 from each of the various dishes sold to Loma Portal Elementary School.

—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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