By FRANK SABATINI JR. | Uptown News
The year was 1954. Swanson TV dinners were newly introduced. Elvis Presley had just launched his music career. And plaid-pleated skirts and corduroy sport coats were in vogue.
Over on El Cajon Boulevard, a little east of North Park in City Heights, a humble eatery named Venice Italian Cuisine was born. It’s where a plate of ravioli with meatballs or sausage was priced at around $2. And it included soup, salad, ice cream and coffee.
Now at 65 years old, and long ago renamed Venice Pizza House after moving only feet away from its original location to 3333 El Cajon Blvd., the restaurant is a beacon for hearty meals stamped with Italian-immigrant soul.
It was founded by Sicilian transplant Salvatore (Sam) LoMedico, and his wife Prudie, a native of Detroit.
“He did the cooking, and she worked as the hostess,” said Bill LoMedico of his late grandparents, who ran the restaurant until the early-1970s before passing the torch to their daughter Margherita and her Sicilian-born husband, Joseph. The couple are distant cousins and share the LoMedico surname.
“Those are my parents,” added LoMedico, who manages the restaurant. “They’re now retired but still own the business and enjoy traveling in their motor home.”
Bill LoMedico recalls jumping into the fray at the age of 10 to wash dishes and help out with other chores at the restaurant. But it was the culinary end of the operation that ultimately called.
“I was always fascinated by cooking and would help my mother make bacon and eggs at home. I eventually learned from my dad how to make sauce and meatballs. He probably made about two million of them before retiring. That’s not exaggerating. Now I’m the meatball guy.”
The menu features recipes that have remained firmly intact since the restaurant’s inception. Those items include lasagna, manicotti, eggplant Parmesan, the red sauce, and others.
“They all originated from my grandparents,” LoMedico pointed out while hand-rolling dozens of beef meatballs on a recent weekday afternoon. “We make about 200 a week,” he added.
Today’s pizza selection runs the gamut from traditional and modern to unexpectedly outrageous.
If building your own pie, toppings that were common in decades past include anchovies, pepperoni, salami and house-made fennel sausage.
Contemporary choices extend to various veggies, Canadian bacon, roasted chicken, barbecue sauce, and cheeses such as feta and ricotta — fixings that pizza consumers back in the day would have deemed sacrilegious.
The same reaction would have likely applied to some of the currently popular specialty pizzas created by LoMedico’s brother-in-law, Tom Vergos, who serves as kitchen manager.
One of his biggest sellers is the chicken cordon bleu pizza topped with a melange of chicken, ham, Swiss cheese and Alfredo sauce.
Vergos recalls initially introducing the pizza as a weekly special after experimenting with 10 different recipes. Customers gave their rousing approval.
“It’s the richest thing you’ve ever eaten in your life,” he said while noting that his “double pizza” is a formidable heavyweight contender as well.
Inspired by the sinful foods of the San Diego County Fair, and available only during its June-July run each year, the invention features a pizza with up to three toppings piggybacking a second pizza also with three selected toppings. The dual dose of goodness takes 40 minutes to bake.
New Jersey transplant Sheila Fischer says Venice Pizza House is her family’s go-to place for plain cheese and vegetarian pizzas. And she doesn’t mind making the drive from Hillcrest to get them.
“My grandfather lived near the restaurant and favored their pizza and meatballs over everyone else’s. I remember going there as a child when my parents took me to San Diego to visit him. Since moving this year, I find it’s the closest thing to New Jersey-style pizza anywhere in the city,” she said.
Venice’s pizza crust sports medium thickness and offers faint notes of yeast, an attribute that back-East transplants often complain is missing in San Diego pizzas. In addition, the pies are baked long enough to properly melt their generous mantles of cheese and lightly toast them up in spots.
All of the pizzas are sold whole and measure 12-inches in diameter.
“We’re a pizza house first, and a restaurant second,” said LoMedico of his two-section dining room, where other items such as house-made soups, fresh salads, assorted torpedo sandwiches, and “Mama’s meatloaf” also rule the day.
The latter is another menu offering by Vergos, based off a recipe from his friend’s mother. It’s made with beef and pork and covered with mozzarella and marinara sauce.
“I always hated meatloaf but loved this when I’d visit their house as a kid,” Vergos recalls.
The restaurant is also famous for its linguine with sea clams, a quintessential Sicilian meal that mingles chopped clams with herb butter and fresh parsley. Several of the bivalves sitting in their open shells further distinguish the dish.
“It’s all homestyle cooking. Our portions are huge, and nobody walks away hungry,” said LoMedico.
Coveted limoncello cake and spumoni ice cream are on the dessert list. Both have become increasingly hard to find on the San Diego dining scene, despite our city’s glut of new, Italian restaurants.
LoMedico believes in consistency when it comes to the restaurant’s culinary offerings, preferring not to eliminate long-established dishes — or tamper with them.
“We’ve seen the same customers coming in for 40 and 50 years,” he noted.
When asked if he foresees the restaurant enduring for many more years to come, he hopes a certain family member might someday fill his shoes.
“My son and daughter have no plans to take it over, but a young nephew of mine might. I would love to see the restaurant go on forever.”
— 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