By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The story behind The Haven Pizzeria’s name is a strange one.
For those unfamiliar with the existence of a maze of caves residing some 70 feet beneath a nearby home, a visit to the restaurant’s gender-neutral restroom provides a couple photos of the tunnels that once attracted neighborhood kids and their elders with ping pong tables, a slide connecting one cave room to another, and a refrigerator stocked with sodas.
They were dug starting in the early 1940s by then-resident Dr. Glenn Havens, a physicist who apparently became carried away when building a barbecue pit in the soft, sandy soil of his property. Of several accounts written about the elaborate network of tunnels, where rare fossils were eventually found, one was published Jan. 17, 2014 in San Diego Uptown News (tinyurl.com/zbvl4x2).
Restaurateurs Lauren Passero and Kate Grimes were intrigued by the caves when first reading about them in a local history book shortly before opening The Haven a block away from Kensington Café, which they own as well.
“I had met the man who currently lives in the house, and the rooms are still under there,” says Passero. “It’s a bizarre story that we decided to reference when naming The Haven, as a place that brings everyone together just as those caves did years ago.”
Yet aside from two eye-catching panels of framed moss on a wall, the restaurant hardly sends you down into some spooky, netherworld.
The atmosphere is bright and modern, accented cheerfully by colorful, geometric wood tiles stretching across an opposite wall. Booths, banquettes and regular tables occupy the cozy dining room, which was filled to capacity on this rainy evening.
There’s also a quaint bar featuring draft and bottled craft beer as well as reasonably priced wines that include Melini Chianti, one of the fruitiest best-structured Tuscan Chiantis I’ve sipped in a while.
I visited with a big fan of the place who insisted we share the large house salad with gorgonzola dressing. Indeed, she steered me without regret to this simple medley of mixed greens, tomatoes, red onions and house-made croutons, all tossed evenly in dressing that could essentially make garden weeds taste appealing with its addition of heavy cream and chives.
We proceeded to marinated shrimp skewers and “Dave’s meatballs” as appetizers.
The sweet Mexican white shrimp — interspersed by cherry tomatoes and served in a pond of balsamic — were beautifully cooked and sported sensational flavor from paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic and parsley.
The meatballs, too, were finely seasoned, but they needed extended simmering in the red sauce. Named after an esteemed patron, they were overly firm for my liking.
Pizzas served in 9- or 14-inch sizes dominate the menu. There are also several pasta dishes for the choosing, made with either penne or spaghetti.
The pizza dough is made onsite and the pasta is sourced fresh from Assenti’s in Little Italy.
For our pie, we skipped over a number of “Haven creations” in an attempt to replicate what we believe is one of the tastiest pizzas in town — the “artichoke special” at East Coast Pizza in Hillcrest.
From The Haven’s create-your-own category, we found exactly the ingredients needed: pesto and red sauces; mozzarella, ricotta, and chopped artichokes.
Perfecto! The combined toppings tasted on point — herby, bright and creamy, and with teasing acidity from random plops of the tomato sauce. Its thin crust, however, didn’t measure up to the alluring, delicate structure of East Coast’s. Though not bad, it was chewier and drier in comparison.
When poking in to The Haven shortly after it opened nearly four years ago, I took an immediate liking to the sauce-less Cortez pizza featuring mozzarella, Gorgonzola, diced tomatoes, arugula, and candied bacon, which appears on several other signature pies. Rich and sweet, the construct is still available in its high-calorie glory.
From the pasta category, we adored the lemon factor permeating an order of spaghetti Alfredo with shrimp. The fresh citrus added quasi-lightness, at least psychologically, to what is normally a heavy intake of cheese, cream and butter from the sauce. Despite finding only four shrimp scattered throughout these generous swirls of fresh noodles, I’d order the dish again for its feel-good texture and graceful flavor.
Dinner concluded with tiramisu, a dessert I seldom crave though prefer in springy square-cut pieces when I do. This was ubiquitously deconstructed, layered in a glass jar with ladyfingers (dipped in espresso and Kahlua), mascarpone cheese, and chocolate shavings. Next time it’ll be the chocolate panna cotta.
Passero and Grimes, who also own Del Sur Mexican Cantina in South Park, recently introduced several sandwiches to The Haven’s lunch menu. They include spicy eggplant, meatball, and vegetarian, all served on house-made rolls. In addition, happy hour is held from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, when beer, wine and most menu items are $2 off their regular prices.
—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 firstname.lastname@example.org.