On the Menu: A slice of la dolce vita and a side of amore at Cesarina
In 2019, a triumvirate of two young Romans and one Napolitano created a brick-and-mortar trattoria named Cesarina in honor of its culinary muse, who started selling her handmade pastas and sauces at roving farmers markets when she first planted her roots in San Diego.
As you approach Cesarina in Point Loma, your senses start firing on all cylinders. The quaint garden patio blooms with assorted flowers, hanging baskets and evergreen clusters entwined in a rustic redwood trellis.
Moving indoors, the dining area pulls you in all directions with a lively hoopla filling the room like Carnevale in Venice around Easter, while eye-popping colors, textures and ornamentation send your brain into overload.
Let’s start with the kitschy pink ostrich feather chandelier and an entire shelved wall artistically displaying large pickling jars packed with vibrantly hued fruits, vegetables and spices. The linguini-long bar blends elements of Old World Italian charm and modern glitz like the marble countertop and iridescent emerald tiles, while green leather booths, midcentury ice cream parlor chairs, distressed wooden tables and colorful ceramic plates from the Amalfi Coast complete the wow factor.
But the familial cornerstone of the trattoria can be found in the glass-enclosed pastificio station, where pasta of all manner is freshly churned out daily with Mariapia Viscito, aka “la regina della pasta” (the pasta queen), overseeing the production.
The air is perfumed with a homey aroma of freshly baked bread seasoned with turmeric, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. A warm basket is placed on each table when customers arrive “to welcome them with hospitality and a feeling of family,” said Niccolò “Nic” Angius, the business operations and marketing head of the triumvirate and husband of chef Cesarina Mezzoni, a rising star of the culinary universe.
As executive chef and matriarchal nurturer of the restaurant, she constructs the menu, makes proposals and coordinates with the pastry staff. Although everyone works as a team, “at the end of the day she’s the real boss,” Angius joked.
Mezzoni, the daughter of a butcher, baker and pasta maker, learned her craft from her mother, who moved to Rome from Seychelles, a group of islands in East Africa, and quickly assimilated by immersing herself in the authentic preparation of Italian cuisine.
The third member of the ownership trio, Giuseppe Capasso, manages human resources and takes care of staff.
Angius is as proud of the loyalty and kudos from the locals, tourists and commuters who regularly make the trek from Orange County, Fallbrook and North County as he is of the restaurant’s coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand designation.
“Seeing a buzzing full house every night and sharing Italian food, culture and love is most rewarding,” he said. “When your grandma cooks for you, it’s her way of saying she loves you. Chef Cesarina brings that credo to San Diego in a new generation of family-owned trattoria.”
“Even during the pandemic, there was strong community support,” Angius added. Patrons preferred dining outdoors on the patio, which is now a cozy and warm space with eco-friendly chimneys and fire pits, along with customized lap warmers. Now diners tend to shuffle indoors as the weather gets cooler.
“The restaurant is designed to welcome everyone,” Angius said. “Our target market is the guest who loves good food, hospitality and a warm, welcoming environment.”
One of the most popular dishes is butano amat racian, a cured cheek of pork with fresh tomatoes and cracked black pepper. It has modest origins from Naples when peasants were fed scraps. Other customer faves include stuffed pastas like ravioli with spinach and fresh tomato sauce, tonnarelli cacio and pepe (pecorino Romano cheese and pepper tossed with thick spaghetti), and the hearty grass-fed beef lasagna.
The menu also has a do-it-yourself component in which diners construct their own dishes, selecting a freshly made pasta — whether penne, pappardelle, bucatini, fusili, mafalde, gnocchi or paccheri — along with daily-crafted stuffed pastas, then choosing the sauce, including pomodoro fresco, pesto alla Genovese, beef Bolognese, creamy funghi and arrabbiatissima, and finally topping off with a pick of fresh cheeses. Then for dessert, Chef Cesarina recommends the tiramisu prepared tableside with homemade ladyfingers freshly dipped in espresso, slathered with silky mascarpone cheese and dusted with cocoa powder.
Brunch is served on weekends, blending American tradition with Italian flavors and offering some lollapaloozas like spaghetti frittata topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and a mountain of meatballs. There’s also a fun menu for bambini (the kiddies). Diner’s tip: Bring your Google Translator app for interpreting the dishes.
In addition, the menu accommodates patrons with dietary restrictions, preferences and allergies, serving gluten-free pasta and salads and vegan options using cashew-based cheeses and spicy plant-based salami as an antipasti. The trattoria also has embraced an ethos of sustainability by curbing disposable plastics and sourcing the highest-quality, all-natural, non-GMO products from local purveyors for the freshest possible ingredients.
What’s down the pike for the Cesarina team? Angius recently returned from Italy, scouting two pizza chefs to head an authentic pizzeria across the street. Another part of the expansion plan includes developing the retail arm of the business, offering customers fresh pastas, scratch sauces, breads, and delights from the made-to-order cake division called Le Toret di Cesarina, along with launching a full catering service by next summer.
Where: 4161 Voltaire St., Point Loma
Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Information: (619) 226-6222, cesarinarestaurant.com
An at-home spinoff of a signature Cesarina entrée, spaghetti alla carbonara.
Ingredients: 10.5 oz spaghetti, 5.2 oz guanciale, 4 large egg yolks, 2.8 oz pecorino Romano, finely grated 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 3 tsp. coarse salt
1. Heat 6 quarts of water in a large stockpot over high. When water starts to boil, add 3 tsp. of coarse salt. Besides the stockpot, place a large saucepan over low heat for the guanciale and let it heat.
2. While you are waiting on the water, cut the guanciale into thick strips about 1 inch long and 1/2-inch deep.
3. Once the pan is very hot, add the guanciale and let it cook for 2 minutes over medium-low without touching it. When the guanciale starts to “sweat,” stir and let it fry in the fat until golden brown. With a strainer, fish out the guanciale and put it on absorbent paper. Keep the fat in the pan.
4. For the carbonara sauce, in a large bowl, whisk the yolks, the pecorino cheese and 2 tsp. of guanciale fat till combined. The result will be a thick and grainy yellow/orange sauce.
5. Cook the pasta into boiling and salted water following the cooking directions on the pasta label. Drain the pasta al dente 2 minutes earlier than the suggested time. Put aside 1/3 cup of the cooking water.
6. Over medium heat, using the same pan where the guanciale fat was kept, add the cooked spaghetti and the 1/3 cup of cooking water. Stir frequently and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
7. Turn off the heat and pour the pasta into a cold metal bowl. Add the egg yolk sauce and mix everything for 30 seconds.
8. Plate in a serving bowl and finish by adding the crispy guanciale and some extra freshly crushed black pepper and some grated pecorino, as desired.