By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Some of the most heavenly foods originate from the northern-Italian city of Parma, starting with the gold standard of dry-cured ham known as prosciutto di Parma. The area is also home to hardy pork ragus, stuffed pastas (think tortellini), and Parmigiana Reggiano, which ranks among the strongest tasting cheeses in the world.
Your gateway to this gastronomic paradise lies in the heart of Hillcrest, at Parma Cucina Italiana, where the charm factor of its Italian owners and servers are just as captivating as the wild boar Bolognese clinging to ribbons of house-made pappardelle pasta.
Leonardo Ciriminna and his wife, Francesca Giuliani, opened the intimate restaurant six years ago after moving here from Florence. Influenced by the cuisine of Parma, which sits to the north of their hometown, Ciriminna also incorporated into the menu some of his late grandmother’s recipes for things like beef meatballs and lasagna layered with bechamel sauce. She penned them in a notebook decades ago, and Ciriminna keeps the collection dearly on hand.
Just as I recalled when eating here in 2014, customers start sauntering in almost immediately after the doors open at 4:30 p.m. each day. The couple is usually onsite to warmly greet them — an essential gesture that contributes to the restaurant’s sustained success on a block of Fifth Avenue (between University and Robinson) where eateries suddenly come and go often.
Adding to the equation is a lot of damn good food.
A plate of the gorgeous thin-sliced prosciutto is a pleasant, salty prelude to crostini de polenta, an appetizer featuring two square cuts of the soft cornmeal. One is draped with mild gorgonzola-walnut sauce, and the other with a cream-laden puree of truffles and porcini mushrooms. It’s a refined, outstanding dish indicative of classic northern-Italian cuisine.
Lentil soup (among others) appears on the menu about 10 days a month. Lucky for hubby and I, we got to slurp down a couple bowls of the thick pottage, which is augmented by a soulful puree of onions, potatoes, carrots, parsley and a touch of garlic. Say yes to your server’s offer of grated Parmesan on top, and you’re suddenly transported to you know where.
Ciriminna recently began adding fish and seafood to the menu for customers wishing to step outside of landlocked Parma. Aside from a daily catch and smoked salmon with penne pasta in wine-cream sauce, there’s house-made tagliatelle egg noodles dressed in homey red sauce and twined around shrimp cooked in white wine, garlic and herbs. The pasta is lightweight, and the combined flavors are lovably Italian.
Ditto for the wild boar Bolognese and classic chicken piccata. The latter gives you a few pounded-out breasts fillets draped in lemon-wine sauce and capers. It includes basic mashed potatoes and colorful caponata, the Italian equivalent of French ratatouille involving roasted eggplant, zucchini, onions and a variety of bell peppers.
Giuliani makes the desserts. If you’ve never had tartufo, this is the place to try it. Common throughout all of Italy, it typically features two flavors of ice cream — in this case scratch-made chocolate and hazelnut gelato — encasing fruit or chocolate. Our surprise center was soft semi-sweet fudge, a perfect come-on to the icy outer shell.
We also tried her cocoa-dusted tiramisu constructed with espresso-soaked ladyfingers and imported mascarpone cheese, which tasted tangier and creamier than domestic versions. Giuliani omits the usual injection of brandy in the recipe — and without any consequences to the overall flavor profile.
The wine list focuses on varietals from Italian regions. There’s Lambrusco Dolce from Emilia-Romagna; pinot grigio from Umbria; and a full-bodied “super Tuscan” from Toscana that paired fantastically to the wild boar.
Parma Cucina Italiana is LGBT-friendly. Since opening, it has helped raise money for HIV/AIDS service organizations through The Center’s Dining Out for Life program. Its diverse patronage includes Italian transplants who like coming in to chat with the staff in their native language. But even if there isn’t a speck of paesano in your DNA, you’ll feel right at home here.
—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.