Frank Sabatini Jr.
There’s no mystery behind the intense fanfare at Buona Forchetta, which often fills to capacity as though it were sitting on a central square in any major Italian city.
Since opening last year in this tranquil, residential area of South Park, the restaurant continues pampering customers with authentic Neapolitan pizzas, homemade pasta dishes and a passionate staff that will charm the pants off of you with their rolling Italian accents.
The name, Buona Forchetta, translates to “good fork.” But it’s what your utensil pokes into where the real goodness resides, such as in a starter of bulbous artichoke hearts served just like they do in Italy, with their stems still attached and sitting in a pond of olive oil and herbs.
A couple sitting at an adjoining table launched into their meal with arancino Bolognese, a crispy ball of Arborio rice filled with fresh mozzarella and a wisp of beef.
“This is why we drive in here from East County,” the woman said of their repeat visits to the restaurant. “The food is incredible.”
Ambiance plays into the restaurant’s favor as well. Located in a quaint, historic structure at the corner of Beech and 30th streets, the spacious front patio is canopied by mature trees and strung light bulbs. The interior is equally inviting with big windows framed softly in white curtains and marble tabletops flanked by heavy wood chairs.
A portly wood-fire oven showing off gorgeous exterior tile work is the focal point when you first walk in. Owners Matteo Cattaneo, a northern-Italian transplant, and his wife, Alexa Kollmeier, named the custom-made hearth after their young daughter, Sofia.
In keeping with true Neapolitan pizza making, the oven cranks out pies in 90 seconds or less from an inferno registering above 900 degrees. The kitchen adheres to other vital standards as well, such as forming the pizza dough by hand and using both San Marzano tomatoes and water buffalo mozzarella as toppings.
Neapolitan pizzas can appear unattractive because of their irregular shapes and unorganized scatterings of ingredients. But as you’ll find here, their crusts are wonderfully elastic, the sauce is bright and vivid and the buttery mozzarella pays deserving insult to part-skim versions used elsewhere.
Our trio chose the Nicola pizza, which captured red sauce, mozzarella and herby, minced mushrooms under a blanket of prosciutto that was sliced so thin you could have read a newspaper through it. When appropriately cut this way, the ham’s saltiness becomes a teasing compliment to the pizza rather than tasting antagonistic.
Other pizza choices include several made without sauce, such as the tempting Andrea crowned with roasted potatoes, sausage, Parmesan and mozzarella or the top-selling Thomas layered with crème fraiche, asparagus, an oozy egg and dry-cured bacon, known otherwise as speck.
If you come knocking for salad and pasta, Buona Forchetta obliges with flying colors, as proved with an eloquent plate of baby arugula dressed in light vinaigrette and encircled by white anchovies — and lots of them. The fish factor was wonderfully high, making it not the kind of salad you’ll encounter in pedestrian Italian-American restaurants.
Pasta selections are listed at the bottom of the menu, under “cucina.” They change daily. The ravioli on this visit were filled with mushrooms, ricotta and prosciutto and served in a lightly creamed pink sauce. Sweet and luscious they were.
We were no less awed by a plate of house-made linguini strewn with black mussels and large, unpeeled shrimp. The pasta was dressed judiciously in spicy marinara sauce that broke into a louder opera after our animated waiter gave it a tableside dusting of certified Grana Padano cheese straight from the slab.
With our carafe of unnamed Chianti near empty and our plates licked clean, we forked feverishly into a pretty slice of “Delizia di Bosco” for dessert. This is Italian cheesecake at its best, made with a paste of ricotta and mascarpone and set over gluten-free crust that resembled a fresh scone. Non-cloying berry jam on top clenched the deal, leaving us in a blissful daze that hasn’t quite worn off yet.
—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. He has since covered the culinary scene and other subjects for various print and broadcast media outlets in the area. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.