Epicurious Eating: Buonissimo2
For the love of Italy
Published Thursday, 04-Feb-2010 in issue 1154
The English translation for buonissimo is “very good.” The newcomer restaurant in Hillcrest called Buonissimo2 can be more dramatically interpreted as “extraordinary” by those who demand perfection and legitimacy from regional Italian cooking.
Since popping onto the scene in late November, the restaurant has charmed the pants off visitors with its museum-like displays of Italian nostalgia from the 60s and 70s, not to mention a litany of historically treasured recipes from Italy’s most notable food provinces.
That spaghetti alla carbonara sitting under your nose, for instance, is true to what coal miners in Lazio ate generations ago, according to Buonissimo2’s highly personable manager, Marco Zannoni. The dish combines pasta with copious pancetta, eggs, black pepper, and more specifically, Pecorino Romano cheese. To patriotic Italians, Parmesan is a no-no in this scheme. Nobody questions why, and nobody dares to change it.
From the Puglia region is a peasant-y toss of orecchiette pasta (little ears), broccoli, chili peppers, garlic and basil. I found it astoundingly similar to the version my late Italian grandfather conjured up in the days leading to more elaborate Sunday meals. He had emigrated from a province a little north of Puglia along the Adriatic sea, and the only difference was that he didn’t bother adding basil – a minor particular, which in Italy, can pinpoint a family’s geographic background with the accuracy of a GPS system.
“We are trying to bring to San Diego what Italian cuisine in Italy is really like,” says Zannoni, as he recommended a most unique (to Americans) appetizer of veal medallions with tuna sauce from Italy’s northwestern Piedmont region.
The veal, sliced thinly, is topped with a smooth puree of mayonnaise camouflaging tuna and anchovies. Capers and a fanning of sliced baby pickles serve as garnish, but also create a flavor that resembles really good tuna salad, but with veal providing the soft chewy texture.
For those pondering the numeral “2” after the restaurant’s name, it denotes Buonissimo’s second kitchen. The original location, founded in 1968 by the Calo family, still thrives within modest confines in Torino, Italy. In Hillcrest, most of the bric-a-brac occupying the front, middle and back-patio dining areas are imported from the Mother County – an old manual meat slicer, a clunky public pay phone, an iron floor-based wine corking device and a black-and-white television set that needs warming up before a picture emerges.
In capturing Italy’s rustic holdouts, a mishmash of homey wooden tables and chairs pervade. Raised boards mark the place settings. And table bread is served in metal colanders, the kind that every Italian grandmother kept parked alongside their kitchen sinks.
The menu starts off with antipasti, soups and salads, and then progresses to pasta courses, protein dishes and finally dessert. A separate card of daily specials is contained within. And printed next to every item is the region in which they originate.
Other standouts we sampled included fresh buffalo mozzarella with halved cherry tomatoes and basil sauce; vegetarian chickpea soup spiked with rosemary, thyme and sage (the beans, however, were undercooked); and excellent gratin-style potato cakes hiding that buttery Buffalo mozzarella.
The only dish that returned us bluntly onto American soil was polpette di carne – veal-pork meatballs stewed in a watery tomato sauce and served with mashed potatoes. The menu states the dish if from “south Italy.” To us, it tasted strikingly similar to a Midwest meatloaf dinner.
If you’re sick to death of tiramisu, look no further than Buonissimo2’s version made with Christmas bread (pannattoni) instead of ladyfingers. Less espresso-laden than standard recipes, dried fruits and nuts emerge from the cake-like bread, giving the dessert a whole new life that is both ravishing and alien.
And in keeping with Italian tradition, your ticket to good digestion after a full supper involving pasta in the middle course should end with a shot of grappa, sambuca or limoncello. We took in latter and enjoyed the liquour’s citrusy rush still coating on our tongues as we drove away. By the time we hit the first traffic light, we had already begun planning our return for another big and fabulous meal.