Prepped with passion

Prepkitchen Little Italy
1660 India St. (Little Italy)
Dinner prices: Appetizers and salads, $5.75 to $17; entrees, $16 to $25.50

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

There is something about dining above street level that instills such an air of exclusivity to a meal that even a simple burger can taste golden. All the better if the food shines brightly no matter where it’s consumed. Such was the case at Prepkitchen Little Italy, where quaint views of bustling India Street extend all the way to the restroom sinks and nearly everything we ate smacked of homemade excellence.

Warm bean & arugula salad (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Warm bean & arugula salad (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Situated a floor above Yogurtland, a stylish staircase leads into a modernly designed dining room and bar lounge that are separated by old wooden banisters. In the main room, parota wood panels resembling bacon slices hover artistically above the tables. Potted herbs are placed elegantly along the windowsills, while at night the warm glow of an eye-level streetlight casts an accidental romantic flair into the space.

Little Italy marks the third location for Prepkitchen, a sequel to Whisknladle in La Jolla that continues the tradition of house-cured meats along with clean and simple cooking. Since first launching Prepkitchens in La Jolla and Del Mar, founders Arturo Kassel and his chef Ryan Johnston have taken on additional partners for what has become a wildly successful operation rooted squarely in, dare I say, the farm-to-table concept. Though ubiquitous, these guys were slightly ahead of the wave when opening Whisknladle in 2008.

The menu leans heavily toward European-inspired dishes, encompassing a little of Spain, France and Italy. The latter is evident in a Tuscan-style white bean and arugula salad, which I regretted having to share with my companion. The interplay of fresh arugula, warm beans and wide shavings of Parmesan Reggiano, all dressed in a thickened red wine and Dijon vinaigrette, was downright appetite inducing.

After strolling hungrily past several hardcore Italian restaurants to get here, we were happy that the flatbread of the day involved red sauce made with vivid San Marzano tomatoes and house-made mozzarella. The crust was lusciously thin and the spicy salami on top added traditional spark.

Switching gears into something sweeter, we proceeded to plump, piping-hot dates wrapped in bacon and stuffed with ultra-creamy blue cheese.

“These taste almost like dessert,” said my companion as we ignored their heaviness until the bowl was empty. I’d venture to guess it’s the most filling appetizer on the menu outside of the “cutting board” of house-cured meats and artisan cheeses, which appeared substantial when making a flyby past our table.

Bacon-wrapped dates with bleu cheese (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Bacon-wrapped dates with bleu cheese (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Our waitress paced the courses perfectly, allowing us a breather to further savor berry-forward Sangria made with zinfandel and brandy, and a spin-off of a Hemingway Daiquiri that replaces the customary grapefruit juice with tarragon water. The rum, lime juice and maraschino liqueur remain, resulting in a bewitching drink that isn’t plagued by excessive sweetness.

My companion chose Niman Ranch pork porterhouse for his entrée, which didn’t take either of us long to figure out that the meat was brined, given its splendid juiciness. The cut combines the chop and the tenderloin and offers a precious jus that the kitchen enhances with rosemary. Creamed corn, revealing summer freshness and peach salsa were served alongside.

When learning that the kitchen makes its own radiatori pasta, which are shaped like little radiators and usually found only in dried form, I couldn’t resist. Here, the pasta is tossed with sweet Baja shrimp, local tomatoes and Fresno chilies that I could taste but couldn’t see. Breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil are sprinkled on top while a puddle of zippy basil pesto remains hidden at the bottom of the bowl until you start pitching your fork around. At this point, my craving for Italian food that evening was joyfully and unexpectedly fulfilled.

The only dish we didn’t care for was a pair of whoopie pies for dessert, due to the cloying and abundant butter cream bursting out from between the encasing chocolate cakes. I’d rather the traditional marshmallow filling than this deluxe version. Conversely, the plum upside down cake with ginger gelato ranked among one of the best confections I’ve had in a while. Magic occurred on the tongue when the ginger’s sharpness fused with the caramelized fruit and the buttery cake.

Prepkitchen Little Italy also serves weekday lunch, weekend brunch and a late-night bar menu. Its popularity and big windows make it easy to find without using an address. Just look for a cluster of heads and shoulders perched comfortably above the heart of India Street.

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