By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Cafes in bustling Italian cities typically cater to five meal cycles: breakfast; lunch; a late-afternoon period for wine and light snacks; dinner; and dessert in the mid-evening hours, when more wine or an end-of-day cappuccino is in order.
Locally grown Pappalecco, founded in 2007 by two brothers from Pisa, covers those bases.
Since opening its original location in Little Italy, the café has branched into Hillcrest, Kensington, Del Mar and Cardiff. The big draw is gelato, culled from an old Tuscan recipe. It’s available in 16 flavors and made from scratch at the company’s central kitchen in Point Loma, along with a decent variety of breads and pastries distributed also to all of the café’s addresses.
Many of the gelatos are fantastically creamy, such as the seasonal tiramisu recipe rich in espresso. Others are vegan, though equally palate-arresting, like the dark chocolate and mixed berry flavors that continued holding us to the gist of “pappalecco,” which is slang for “little licks” in Italian. Our licks, however, weren’t so diminutive once we got started.
The menus also feature sprightly salads and assorted panini sandwiches. In addition, brick pizza ovens reside at the Kensington and Cardiff locations, where the pies are constructed largely with Tuscan-imported flour, tomato sauce and mozzarella.
To my disappointment when visiting the Hillcrest location with a vegetarian friend in tow, I was led to believe by a public relations representative that the pizzas are sent to locations without the full ovens, and then reheated and served in slices. Not the case, although we found plenty to revel over during this post-lunch time of day.
Pappalecco recently introduced a selection of organic wines from Tuscany, including a boozy well-structured Sangiovese from Santa Lucia vineyards. Served peasant-style in a rocks glass, it paired splendidly to the savories we ordered, including the Roma salad comprising chicken, romaine, avocado, dried cranberries and almonds in Caesar dressing. (Yes, red wine does sing sometimes to leafy greens and poultry.)
My companion ordered the caprese salad, featuring the usual suspects — ripe tomatoes, milky mozzarella and fresh basil — but with the added bonus of pesto and wisps of sweet balsamic contributing to its attractive presentation.
The paninis that followed were crispy and stuffed generously with their various ingredients — perhaps a little too much in the Pappalecco panini I ordered. Layered inside was lean ham, softly cooked eggplant, ripe tomatoes and fresh arugula. Yet it was the heavy combination of cream cheese, melty mozzarella and “green sauce” (pesto mixed with a tad of mayo) inside that prevented me from finishing the other half, which gladly came home with me.
The veggie panini was lighter and somewhat similar, sans the ham. It too featured eggplant, mozzarella, tomatoes and the green sauce. But I especially liked the additions of onions and mushrooms. I could have consumed it entirely in one sitting, just as my friend did while managing to make room for the aforementioned trio of gelatos we ordered with a fair amount of indecision from the colorful lineup.
In the adjoining display cases are pastries and croissant sandwiches, all aglow from their ambient shelf lighting. An apple tart called to us, resulting in a fateful encounter with bright-tasting apples layered beneath a perfectly sugared crumb topping. The spice factor was especially notable, hinting at more than just cinnamon and nutmeg. Maybe star anise or cloves as well?
Pappalecco’s atmosphere in Hillcrest is casual, friendly and artfully decorated with large black-and-white photographs related to eating, and with quotes by famous people attached to them.
“I live and love in God’s peculiar light” is one by Michelangelo that was hanging over our heads as we lazily wrapped up our visit. As with the other Pappalecco locations, we’re told, they are similar to coffeehouses, but with more of a social vibe fueled by the presence of wine, beer and charming Euro-style fare.
—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. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.