By David Nelson
SDUN Restaurant Critic
If you’re in the mood for meatballs, Zio’s has them: on top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese; stuffed into a toasted French roll and doused with marinara sauce and melted cheeses, and on a stand-alone meatball plate that makes quite the filling appetizer. Zio’s does not serve them atop salads, but chef/proprietor Darren James (also known as D.J.) probably could be persuaded to toss a few onto a pile of greenery.
This cozy, comfortable eatery a few doors west of 30th Street is D.J.’s first restaurant venture. Originally from Orange County, he has spent 25 years in San Diego, 15 of them as a banker. As occasionally happens, the time came for a change.
“I decided the corporate world was no longer for me, went to culinary school and became my own boss by opening my own restaurant,” says the personable entrepreneur, who put a lot of sweat equity into outfitting the small dining room that looks through a virtual wall of glass at busy El Cajon Boulevard. You can tell D.J.’s a sports fan, because the flat-screen television often is tuned to a game, and he checks out the action every time he’s in the room. The sound usually is off so guests can converse to the quiet accompaniment of low-pitched jazzy music, big on trumpets and sultry voices.
D.J. gave the dining room a few unusual touches, like a table for two that is flanked by deep, plush, leather-upholstered chairs. The shiny black tabletop is big enough to hold a whole buffet of dishes, a good thing on Wednesday night, when you can bring a hungry teenager – or anyone who generally eats like he hasn’t had a meal in months – for the all-you-can-eat spaghetti and meatball dinner. At $12, the special costs just two bucks more than a regular plate of spaghetti, with the difference that as long as you keep chowing down, the kitchen will keep dishing it up.
A smart promoter, D.J. offers specially priced meals every night but Saturday. The lineup commences with Monday’s all-you-can-eat pasta and salad dinner ($10), and marches through the week with Tuesday’s buy one entrée, get one free (up to $12, that is), and the Wednesday special mentioned above. Every Thursday, guests who dine before 7 p.m. get an impressive 50 percent off their food bill, and the next night, kids eat free on what D.J. calls “Family Fridays with Disney.” Dinner and a show has been a popular combo ever since the Romans opened the Colosseum.
Perhaps because Zio’s also does an active carryout trade, the menu seems big for the premises. D.J.’s creations pepper the list, starting with appetizers like a basket of Italian-style potato chips with ranch dressing ($3), the soup of the day ($3 and $5), and assorted fried snacks that can be combined into the sizeable Zio Sampler, a $10 compendium of crisp chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks and zucchini, all piled atop a bed of french fries.
Despite the tone set by items like the Zio Sampler, the menu actually features plenty of well-composed salads, some dressed with the restaurant’s own champagne and balsamic vinegar dressings. A few, like the Italian garden salad ($4/$8) and the classic Caesar ($5/$8), are offered in both appetizer and entrée versions, while fancier tosses like the Molly (greens inventively mingled with roasted corn, sliced strawberries, red onion and feta cheese) and the Gracie are plenty big enough to make a satisfying entrée (both cost $8). The Gracie enriches mixed greens with avocado, bacon, tomato and croutons, and is full of satisfying flavors.
A choice of soup or salad precedes the generously portioned pastas, which range from the simplicity of a topping of marinara sauce and grated Parmesan ($8) to house specialties like tortelloni stuffed with shredded beef short ribs (no bones about them; $14), and a tomato sauce-free jumble of fusilli with Italian sausage, olive oil, butter, herbs and cheeses ($10). D.J. likes to pair chicken and/or shrimp with pasta, and offers creations like grilled chicken and asparagus spears over penne ($12), and grilled shrimp over fettuccine in a pungent sauce ($15). For something simple and tasty, the fettuccine alla salvia adds a delicate undertone of sage to pasta dressed Alfredo-style ($12).
At Zio’s, man does not live by pasta alone, and there are a variety of panini, including one called “the Zio dog” since it sandwiches Italian sausage, marinara sauce and cheeses inside a toasted, garlicky roll. All panini ($7 and $8), including one stuffed with a Philly “cheese steak” filling of beef and sautéed onions, are served with a side salad or a mound of housemade potato chips. The specialty pizzas ($11 and $12), of which D.J. is particularly proud, use what the chef calls a “rustic, homestyle crust,” shaped irregularly to emphasize that your pie was crafted especially for you. Olives and artichoke hearts raise the bar on the vegetarian pizza, while the robust Zio features a satisfying topping of pepperoni, sausage and mushrooms – and plenty of sauce and cheese. Oddly enough, D.J.’s celebrated meatballs don’t star on any of the pies, but the chef is unlikely to turn down a special request.
This family-friendly eatery offers several $5 and $6 plates for small fry, as well as a pre-6 p.m. senior menu that tops out at $5. But the most important issue is, yes, Zio’s serves desserts, and they’re sweet and rewarding, like the creamy, New York-style cheesecake ($3), and the baked to order, molten-centered chocolate cake ($6). That the Snicker Bar Cheesecake ($5) is “the original pie that eats like a candy bar” says it all. No wine or beer at present but D.J. is awaiting a license.
Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sundays
2940 El Cajon Blvd.
Free parking behind the building