Italian Bohemian

This restaurant is closed.




North Park has long been home to artists, writers, and bohemians of all sorts. Now the neighborhood is officially enjoying an "urban renaissance," as civic boosters call it, spotlighting the art galleries on Ray Street, the weekly farmer's market on North Park Way, and the renovation of the derelict North Park Theater (new home to the San Diego Men's Chorus and Lyric Opera San Diego). And wherever bohemians settle, restaurants and realtors are sure to follow. A gigantic luxury-condo project going up a few steps north of University on 30th is ironically named "La Boheme." (You have to wonder, did the developers include some unheated top-floor art studios as their affordable units? My tiny hand is frozen!)

Across the street from the future Bohemian condorama is the classic signifier of gentrification, a new wine bar -- this being North Park, it's a wine bar with enough differences to break several molds at once. Apertivo calls itself an "Italian Tapas and Wine Bar," unlike all the non-Italian wine bars springing up in Hillcrest. More distinctively, its prices are low enough that even starving artists can eat and drink here. A basic, tasty meal comes to about $10, including beverage, and a light-hearted feast is under $20 per person. Better yet, if you're curious about Italian wines, this is a perfect place to start exploring. They have a few high-end bottlings if you want to get serious, and a great many affordable ones to enjoy casually, the way Italians do.

"Italian tapas?" you may well ask. Well, not really. In the city of Venice, there is such a thing -- but Apertivo doesn't do Venetian cuisine. Nor are the plates tiny, as they are in Spanish tapas bars. Here, dishes are heaped rim-to-rim on medium plates -- the size used for salads in upscale restaurants. These are portioned for moderate eaters, about as much as you'd serve at home (unless you're devoted to Hungry Man). The plates can easily be shared among three or four grazers; for solos, a couple of veggie selections and a protein or pasta could be dinner.

The menu has a genuinely Italian spirit of ease and simplicity. It offers unfussy, homey dishes from no particular province, lightened up and cooked quickly but carefully to order. Seasonal vegetable choices are abundant, ranging from assorted olives to a plateful of grilled mixed veggies. The more substantial dishes stress shellfish, poultry, eggplant, cheese, and pasta, with the merest gesture toward mammal-meat. A modest selection of desserts always includes a special that's based on the ripest fruit of the moment.

A two-sided chalkboard beckons from the sidewalk. One face boasts about the wine list; the other lists the day's specials. Make note of these before you enter. The dining room is long and high-ceilinged, with track lights, industrial carpet, and poster-sized Deco advertising reproductions. Captain's chairs sit at four-person tables topped with black Formica. The ambient Italian music alternates between grand opera and "Funiculi, Funicula" ditties, but you may not hear them clearly. Like so many new neighborhood bistros, Apertivo's architecture creates a "wall of sound," thundering with yelled and echoed conversations. This is why you should look at the specials board before entering: You may not hear the server describing them. The owners are working on the problem (those odd rectangles nailed randomly on the ceiling are acoustical tiles), but until they get serious and install a dropped acoustical ceiling, you'll have to converse in shouts and add to the din.

The secret to eating well here is to remember that bohemians are independent spirits who like to do things their own way. Apertivo's chef-owner deliberately undersalts the dishes so that diners can season to taste, and no server carries a yard-long pepper grinder or crystal bowl of grated cheese, panting to amend your food before you've even tasted it. The condiments (salt and pepper grinders, Parmesan, etc.) are on the table, and you're meant to use them. This is the opposite of the chef-is-boss approach. Once my partner and I realized that you're not just "allowed" but expected to interact with your food, our appreciation for the food increased.

At the end of the room, two chalkboards hang behind the wine bar, the left listing special bottles, the right announcing the current wine flight (typically four half-pours for $8). One evening, I ordered the white flight, featuring four wines from different regions of Italy, each made from a different grape. Tasting them against our dishes proved entertaining. Salads, for instance, generally fight with wines. Our insalata caprese was supersized, a whole tomato sliced into five pieces, each topped with a slab of fresh mozzarella as thick as a poached egg. The top was sprinkled with chopped fresh basil and a superb extra-virgin olive oil from Italy (Piancone brand). The cheese was very mild, the basil muscular. (The tomato, alas, could have been riper, given that this is their season.) After a sip of each glass, I found that the simple, vibrant Soave best held its own against the acidity of the tomato.

Sautéed tiger shrimp were as sweet as farm-fresh corn, wrapped in thin-sliced prosciutto, skewered on toothpicks, and perched over a pool of wonderful olive oil. These flavors went swimmingly with my favorite wine of the flight, an Insolia bottled by Cusumano -- a deep-golden Sicilian Chardonnay that changed flavors from sip to swallow like a serious red, leaving a delicious aftertaste.

Our waitress said, "Good choice!" when we ordered the cremini (brown button mushrooms) sautéed with sherry. She failed to mention that the portion came sized for a family Thanksgiving. I did miss the garlic overdose found in the Spanish version of this tapa. The wine that suited the dish was a Pinot Grigio -- but not one of those dishwater potions that give the grape a bad name. The bumptious, chewy Villanova, with boozy fruit up front and an almost meaty aftertaste, proved perfect with mushrooms. (The fourth wine of the tasting, a pale wraith called Cortese, was mainly useful as an alternative to water.)

Another evening, we started with an arugula salad with pecans, sweet white onion slices, and puffs of rich gorgonzola in a light vinaigrette. My partner and I debated whether to gamble on eggplant rollatini, which can be disastrous. I won, and we loved Apertivo's version: The eggplant is cut thicker than normal, providing more succulence and less grease. Instead of a roll, the slice is folded over like a book, holding a stuffing of sautéed chopped Swiss chard and clean-tasting Montrachet goat cheese. It arrives from the oven topped with tangy melted mozzarella and a bit of marinara sauce.

The pastas are point and shoot: you pick your sauce, then choose your pasta from a selection of capellini, spaghetti, linguini, fettucini, and penne. (They're not house-made but boxed by the excellent DeCecco brand.) The sauces are variations on three themes: aglio e olio (garlic and oil) or butter, a thin marinara, and cream sauce.

With the spaghetti puttanesca, the amended marinara sauce was light, the olives and capers powerful enough to lend a nip. (I'd have liked more and higher-quality anchovies than the sparse, flavorless bits in this dish -- but then, many customers would sooner skip them entirely. And one can't ask for pearls at a price of $4.) Another evening, we tried the bolognese sauce. This is a far cry from the elaborate recipe detailed in Italian cookbooks (with veal, milk, and hours of cooking). Instead, it's a simple, dairy-free meat sauce, like the one made by the chef's frugal Genoese grandmother, with sautéed ground beef and vegetables, garlic, red wine, and marinara. Its flavors didn't seem quite complete, but then we remembered the do-it-yourself style of the restaurant and applied Parmesan from the table condiments. That pulled it together.

The vegetarian three-cheese lasagna is a bit unconventional, with fewer noodles, less sauce, and much more cheese than usual. For $1 extra, they'll paint some meat sauce on top. It's worth a buck to get the contrast of chewy texture against the mass of goo.

The specials here can be fun. One evening, a thick, tender calamari steak was given the full piccata treatment, with a powerful white wine, lemon butter sauce strewn with capers. I liked this sauce even better with squid than with the customary veal scallops. Another night's offering was five ounces of beef tenderloin for $7, which I ordered very rare. Marinated in olive oil, it arrived charred on the outside, cool red velvet on the inside. (It's only Select grade, but this is the most tender large cut on any cow.)

All the desserts are made in-house from scratch, even the pound cake that appears regularly as a special, topped with whipped cream and fresh berries. I prefer my desserts ethereal and barely sweet, and a lemon cheesecake mousse brought joy to my heart and mouth. It's so fragile that it can't stand up straight -- that's why the chef calls it a mousse. Made with whole milk ricotta (not cream cheese) and lemon zest, it almost floats off the plate. Crowning this faerie queen is a handful of fresh blueberries and a pouf of unsweetened whipped cream.

The cooking here is consistently likable; it makes me feel like I'm eating at the house of a friend who cooks joyfully and well, but doesn't get all neurotic over it. The food is serious but not grave, and offers tremendous value for a tiny price.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Ken Cassinelli and his wife Janie Losli are co-owners of Apertivo. Janie is usually the hostess, while Ken, the chef, is the energetic, ponytailed fellow who often trots through the restaurant, pouring water and greeting regular customers by name.

"We're from Portland, Oregon, originally, and we've worked in the restaurant business for almost 30 years," says Ken. "We've both been restaurant managers, and I've been chef and bartender, too. We moved to North Park eleven years ago, and four years ago we bought a home four blocks away....The house is where we got the money for the restaurant. It's quadrupled in value, and we got the money from the equity."

Ken started cooking in childhood and honed his skills throwing frequent dinner parties. Whenever he went to a restaurant with an unfamiliar cuisine, rather than invest in a single entrée, he always ordered combination plates. This gave him the idea to serve "tapas" at Apertivo.

"I do all the prep, every bit. I'm here from eleven to eleven, I spend the day cooking stuff," he says. "The food is pretty much what I'd be cooking at home, and the specials are mainly what I feel like eating that day. I think it's all about simplicity and about the quality of the ingredients you deal with. I buy good canned tomato products from back East; we use imported pasta. I use a cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from Italy for sautéing and salad dressings. I don't buy organic food, but all my produce is from Specialty Produce, which carries locally grown vegetables. I don't have much refrigeration, and they deliver produce five or six days a week. It's fresh! You'll never get something here that's more than two days old -- other than the meat sauce. That, I freeze [to let the flavors blend].

"We can keep our prices low because my wife and I do everything. We're on a shoestring. We have paper napkins, Formica tables, cheap-cheap-cheap carpet on the floor. That's how we can sell the wines for $3 a glass. I buy whole pieces of meat and cut them myself, mainly because I don't like the quality of precut Cryovac-packed meat. At the beginning, I even washed the dishes myself. But when we opened up here, my wife stole a really good line cook from La Dolce Vita, where she'd been working. We also have a salad chef, a dishwasher, and extra cooks on the line on weekends, so I can come out of the kitchen for a couple of minutes now and then.

"I've been exposed to wine all my life. By the time I was highschool age, I'd been to Italy twice, and I knew lots about Italian wines. My family wasn't really sophisticated about it, but then, wine shouldn't be sophisticated or standoffish -- it should be enjoyed! My wife and I knew a wine distributor here, Marco, and now he's the head Italian wine specialist for Southern, the big Goliath -- the largest spirit wholesaler on earth. When we got our license...we called all the distributors in town, and when they heard we were in North Park, they treated us like red-headed stepchildren! But Marco sat down with us and put together a wine list, everything very inexpensive, and we had the wines within four days. Now, we have three distributors we buy from regularly. Two of them are little guys we became friends with. It's not all Italian wine. We buy locally grown wines like Orfila, we have a Tempranillo from the Guadalupe Valley, and right now we have a really nice, sort of effervescent Portuguese Vinho Verde.

"When I told people four years ago that I wanted to open a wine bar and nicer restaurant in North Park, they literally laughed in my face....When I first opened, I thought most people would just come in for a glass of wine and maybe a little garlic bread -- but people in the neighborhood are really coming in to eat. That's why we have to have specials -- they've already been through the regular menu and want something new. This last week was the busiest ever. And now we have La Boheme [the condo development] going up across the street, and the theater's opening The Mikado in October. Wine bar, theater -- c'mon! Who's laughing now?"

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