Frank Sabatini Jr Restaurant Review
2949 Fifth Ave., San Diego, CA 92103
Prices: Pizzas and sandwiches,
$6.90 to $17.90;
pasta plates, casseroles and
dinner specials, $6.35 to $18.40
Long before the proliferation of Italian restaurants occurred throughout San Diego, there was Sanfilippo’s, a family-owned kitchen that has demonstrated molto staying power ever since it opened in 1976. A couple years ago, however, the restaurant suddenly went poof because of landlord issues. Everyone assumed it was gone for good. Much to the delight of longtime patrons, the operation returned from an eight-month limbo, landing only a few blocks south of its original location on Fifth Avenue.
“We got lucky to find this spot. It’s the only reason we reopened last year,” says Owner Joe Torres. Torres’s uncle, Tommy Sanfilippo, founded the restaurant and later introduced to the menu Italian-style casseroles involving various combinations of meats and veggies. The ingredients are baked in tomato sauce and concealed beneath toasted, oozy mantles of mozzarella cheese.
The new digs feature a sizable front patio and a loosely divided two-room interior that affords plenty of wiggle room between tables. It’s flanked by Evolution Fast Food and Extraordinary Desserts, a fortuitous position in terms of consumer traffic.
The menu from the former location remains firmly intact although Torres hinted at some quality control improvements that seemed detect¬able compared to my last visit before it reopened. The red sauce, for instance, tasted exceptionally balanced and less acidic than what I remembered. My companion’s linguini with shrimp showed off hearty measures of garlic, sweated perfectly into the dish’s base of extra-virgin olive oil. (I can’t recall eating anything that garlicky here in the past.) Even the table cheese seemed of a higher grade, stinky and robust rather than the vapid sawdust that other places pass off as “parmesan.”
In the sausage pizza we ordered, the crust was subtly crispy, the cheese evenly melted and the sauce distributed properly, meaning that it reached all the way to the pie’s perimeter. Hallelujah! Ditto for the crumbled pieces of sweet sausage on top, which also bestowed extra flavor to those final end pieces.
If you’re avoiding carbs, the casseroles are a safe option because they contain no pasta, just cheese and red sauce with meatballs or sausage or chicken. The vegetarian versions offer a choice of eggplant, artichokes, mushrooms or asparagus. We chose the latter. Fortunately we’re both wild about aspara¬gus because the dish was loaded with the stuff, as it seemingly kept reproducing more of the thin, mostly tender spears as we forked along.
Like many of the dishes on Sanfilippo’s menu, the casseroles are available in small and large sizes, with most of them priced below $10. Nine-inch torpedo sandwiches with cold or hot meats are also kept below that mark. The signature specials, such as beef scallopini, eggplant Parmesan and linguini with shrimp or clams are sold al a Carte or in old-school style with garlic bread, soup or salad.
The wine list is super limited, of the Carlo Rossi ilk, though it surprised us with Chianti that was non-harsh and pleasantly fruity. When eating homey Italian food as this, it works just fine.
Perhaps the biggest thrill of the meal came at the end via a deep bowl of classic spumoni sourced from a company specializing in the three-flavor ice cream (chocolate, pistachio and strawberry). Candied fruits and nuts strewn throughout clenched the deal and left us wish¬ing that more restaurants, Italian or not, would carry it on their dessert menus. Fortunately, Sanfilippo’s knows better to always keep it in the house