By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It isn’t until you peer through a canopy of trees that the signage for Pizza e Birra comes into focus. Drive past too quickly, and you could easily miss this Italian restaurant and its vine-enclosed patio, both of which occupy part of a mixed-use residential structure called The Charmer built in 2011 by acclaimed urban-housing architect Jonathan Segal.
The pizzeria previously served as Segal’s office. In his classic neo-industrial style, the space is marked by exposed air ducts and big glass windows gracing a welcoming open-floor layout similar to Trust restaurant, located at the base of Segal’s recently completed project, the Mr. Robinson lofts in Hillcrest.
Here, the bill of fare is decidedly more commonplace — chicken wings, sandwiches, traditional pasta dishes and pizzas cooked in a high-heat oven left behind by the restaurant’s original founder.
Its new owner, Robert Zaitona, kept the name and concept, but elevated many of the dishes with organic produce and grass-fed beef. He also expanded the craft beer offerings from six to 24 taps while enhancing the wine list.
He uses the grass-fed beef in meatballs, lasagna and Bolognese sauce. And his pizza dough recipe calls for “00” flour and less water for achieving a crispier crust. Though not as thin and delicate as others constructed similarly, it was well-structured nonetheless.
The Caesar salads we started with were exactly how I like them, made from the crispiest inner leaves of Romaine lettuce, and adorned with wide shavings of sharp Parmesan and oversized, house-made croutons. The dressing was exquisite, smoothly emulsified, and with a sweet-tangy essence accented by a tinge of anchovy paste.
An appetizer of double-fried jumbo chicken wings coated in Buffalo sauce didn’t yield the crackly skins I expected when biting into them, but they were still a significant cut above the rubbery ilk I encounter all over town.
Zaitona says he deep-fries the wings for four minutes, and then lets them rest a bit before frying them again for another five minutes. In total, that’s about three minutes longer than what most San Diego kitchens cook them for, and six minutes less compared to how they’re traditionally made in my hometown of Buffalo, New York.
Our choice of sliced meatballs and green bell peppers on a 12-inch pizza proved savory, and hinted at Zaitona’s Chaldean roots. The meat tasted faintly like gyros because of onions and Arabic parsley he mixes into it. With Belgian strong ale by North Coast Brewing Company parked alongside, we were in gustatory synch with the restaurant’s simplistic, fully translated name, “pizza and beer.”
My lasagna-loving companion couldn’t resist ordering Zaitona’s four-layer recipe made with thin, imported sheet pasta. It was classic in the American-Italian sense — covered in vaguely acidic red sauce and mantled with melted mozzarella. Served with a slice of pinwheel garlic bread, it satisfied the craving.
The menu has likely expanded since our recent visit. In the pipeline were additional pasta dishes and sandwiches, plus desserts such as tiramisu and s’mores bars orchestrated by Zaitona’s fiancée, Elizabeth Martinez, who learned the ropes of baking at an early age.
With an appealing atmosphere and side patio shaded by copious greenery, Pizza e Birra offers a good bang for the buck, as prices across the board are reasonable compared to trendier establishments charging upwards of $20 for pizzas and pasta dishes. Here, the costs are half the amount, and for food that adheres to a respectable standard of quality.
—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. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.