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Roman fervor

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

Don’t be the sad person who walks into Maestoso expecting a quiet dinner. The restaurant, complete with a rolling food cart, an open kitchen, and an army of extroverted Italian waiters, qualifies as one of the liveliest and most unique Italian establishments San Diego has seen in a while.

A stylized “M” above the entrance marks the spot for Maestoso, the restaurant. (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Located in the Hub Hillcrest Market, it’s one of those places fraught with a tricky spelling and pronunciation. Say “my-stozo” and you’re on the right track. It’s the surname of co-owner Marco Maestoso, a renowned chef who ran a restaurant in his native Rome and a supper club in New York City before recently settling in San Diego.

Like most of the wait staff, Maestoso charms the pants off customers with his swarthy looks and heavy Italian accent as he wanders the dining room occasionally to mingle with customers. A hint to other restaurant owners and chefs who never bother: this interaction contributes greatly to repeat business and it appears the magic is already working here quite well.

Toss into the equation a food cart loaded with a potpourri of small noshes and you’ve created a frenzy, which was nothing short of boisterous on the recent Thursday evening we visited.

The Maestoso restaurant, which replaced Napizza, is located in a space that lacks soundproofing from its concrete floor to tall ceiling. It’s a stylish atmosphere, complete with a jumbo chandelier and a U-shaped dining counter facing straight into the open kitchen. There’s also a front and side patio, both of which were empty on this chilly night, hence the full-capacity crowd inside.

Dozens of different tapas — known as passaggi — filled the three-tiered food cart each time it wheeled by. They’re priced between $1 to $18 apiece, although most were in the $2 to $5 range during our visit.

A cart stocked with Italian tapas are wheeled around the restaurant frequently.

They included quinoa salads, mini caprese, cheesy bread balls, little bites of various meats, and other items we couldn’t figure out even after our waiter described them to us, thanks to the deafening din. Nonetheless, it’s a fun concept that yielded satisfying noshes.

The food remained on the up-and-up as we proceeded to the la pinsa (pizza) category. Available in several toppings, these lightweight beauties hail from an ancient Roman recipe featuring low-gluten crusts made of rice and wheat flours. The dough is given more than 72 hours to rise and cooked at a high temperature. What you get are airy bites and well-done finishes, two qualities that rarely reside in one crust.

We chose the only pizza with red sauce — the “Melanzana di Casa,” which flaunted eggplant, buffalo mozzarella and Parmesan. So delicious, we left nary a crumb behind.

The “Melanzana di Casa” pizza

“Majestic meatballs” come in two varieties. Carnivores get a beef-pork-veal mix with seared exteriors, similar to those on the meatballs my grandmother used to pan-fry before braising them in tomato sauce.

Two veggie meatballs (top) and two made with beef, pork and veal

Vegetarians are afforded a blend of beets and mushrooms. Both types were tender and tasty; although if size matters, you might be disappointed. Each were no bigger than pingpong balls.

Pasta is made on-site. Six different options of various cuts exist, with each sporting their own proteins, vegetables and sauces.

Fusilli pasta with fermented veggies and tomato sauce

My vegetarian friend chose fusilli tossed with cauliflower ragu, tomato sauce and dehydrated vegetables. Except for a couple panels of beets that resembled beef jerky, the veggies were finely minced, offering an exquisite, subtle texture to the dish as well as a rich, earthy flavor.

My choice — elbow-shaped maccheroni with pork cheek — was naturally more luxurious. The pork was finely ground and practically melted into the tomato sauce, similar to little torn pieces of anchovies in pasta puttanesca. On the lip of the plate were splotches of pecorino cheese sauce. It was love at first bite, and the dish tasted even more sensational when eating the leftovers the next day, in the quietude of home.

Maestoso aims for sensible complexity in his cooking, which carries right through to dessert. Look no further than the “semolino Californiano,” a dessert that resembled a Dali painting with its squiggly flowers of rosemary-ricotta cheese and micro herbs seemingly floating between plops of polenta and mini discs of hazelnut cookies. It all sat in a pond of stunning-yellow citrus gelee.

The food warrants repeat visits, but for this frequent diner who enjoys intimate chitchat with his tablemates, quiet Monday nights (if they exist here) may be the only viable option.

— 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. Reach him at  fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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