By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Only in the last decade or so did San Diego see an exhilarating upsurge in Italian restaurants. Sure, a good handful of them long resided in Little Italy and beyond. But much like their counterparts throughout the rest of the country, they slung Americanized items drowned in seas of red sauce.
Civico 1845 is among our city’s contemporary class of restaurants run by modern Italian immigrants. In this case, it’s a couple of cool cats from Calabria, Italy, a southern region where sweet tomatoes, fruity olive oils and those famous Calabrian chili peppers impart robust flair to seafood, meat and pasta dishes.
What Civico also offers is quite uncommon to Italian restaurants here and abroad—a full repertoire of vegan dishes ranging from antipasti and main-course options to delectable desserts that you’d swear are loaded with cream. Such is the case with the house gelato or espresso-cake tiramisu oozing with Marsala-spiked zabaione, a silky custard made normally with eggs. You’d be remiss to overlook either.
The three-year-old restaurant is owned by chef Pietro Gallo (a vegan) and his omnivore brother, Dario Gallo. Also on board is business partner Flavio Piromallo from Naples.
The affable trio have created a warm, nurturing environment in a double storefront that features a beer and wine bar and an illuminated wall bedecked with old kitchen objects—oven paddles, milk cans, rolling pins and other cooking tools seemingly plucked from a century-old farmhouse.
Consistency is Civico’s strong point. The vegan calamari, for instance, smacked of the same convincing flavor and texture of calamari as I remember when dining here more than two years ago.
Pietro makes the dish with oyster mushrooms, which are cut into thin strips, dusted in corn flour and flash-fried. Spritz the pieces with fresh lemon and dip them into the bright marinara sauce served alongside, and the “calamari” starts tasting like something fished from the sea.
I also remember the super-fresh essence of Civico’s house-made focaccia bread, a complimentary starter served with an outrageously luscious puree of fresh basil and smooth-tasting olive oil. Those haven’t changed.
Nor has the use of flavorful heirloom tomatoes, which appeared this time thinly sliced on a plate of burrata caprese. The tomatoes were enhanced by cunning measures of black lava salt, extra-virgin olive oil and the burrata, a young and creamy mozzarella that Civico imports from Italy. With wild arugula centered on top and a pinch of herbs sprinkled across, this is caprese in its highest form.
Dario claims his brother uses 90 percent organic produce. And canned tomatoes that go into the pasta sauces are of the San Marzano variety—those coveted heirlooms of Neapolitan origin.
From the regular non-vegan menu, my companion found a winner that suited his vegetarian diet, the pennette melanzane. It consisted of small penne pasta, cooked al dente, plus cubes of expertly roasted eggplant and smoked buffalo mozzarella, all lightly draped in tomato sauce that landed in that saintly midpoint of sweet and acidic.
Four giant prawns stole the show in my “scialatielli Civico” entree. They were bedded on flat-cut, house-made pasta (scialatielli) resembling fettuccine, which was infused with imported Calabrian chilies. Dario calls them “the best chili peppers in the world” because of their sweet-spicy balance.
They offered a faint flavor to the pasta, which more so picked up the essence of the prawns with their “hairy” shells still on. They were gorgeous and delicious.
If you’re looking for San Diego’s biggest meatball, you’ve come to the right place. The “polpette,” as it’s called in Italian, is a softball-size orb of finely ground beef and pork. Its seamless texture and herby flavor rivaled the ones my late grandma used to make. Though similar, hers were smaller and contained less oregano. They also lacked the extra herbs (marjoram and rosemary, perhaps) that went into this mixture.
Black olives and capers proved tasty complements to a mound of braised escarole we shared. They were scattered throughout the wilted greens along with little flecks of Calabrian chilies. Like the giant meatball, it’s a $5 sidekick that your entree of choice deserves.
Civico 1845 is named in part after its numeric address on India Street. Situated in the heart of Little Italy’s ever-growing bustle, it accepts reservations for parties of four or more Sunday through Thursday. If you’re visiting on Friday or Saturday evening, however, the wait you may encounter for a table will be well worth your time.
— 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 email@example.com.