Missing Chef Found in Clairemont Mall

Cucina Italiana

4705-A Clairemont Drive, Clairemont

The last two years, we've seen a game of musical chefs. Now it's progressed to musical restaurants, with a mad swirl of newcomers replacing old- and not-so-old-timers. In a recent change, Cucina Italiana ("Italian kitchen") has supplanted Via Italia in Clairemont -- but this time the alterations aren't drastic. The new owner is José Flores, a longtime Via Italia chef (both here and at the remaining Encinitas location). Flores left to open the late, lamented Trattoria Nostrana at the outer reaches of La Mesa, then sold it when it was at the height of its popularity. (The new owners flopped.) Eventually, he returned to Via Italia and ended up buying it.

A Del Mar fan of Flores's food (thanks, Reader-reader Jan!) tracked him to his current location and wrote me a letter raving about it. I promptly called posse-members Marty and Dave, the "discoverers" of Nostrana, who were thrilled that one of their favorite chefs was cooking again. So, shortly after Christmas, we pounced.

The decor hasn't altered much since my last visit to Via Italia, except that the tables, which are new, are topped with poured "stone"-like kitchen counters and don't wobble. The dining room is small, but the heated patio catches spillovers in dry weather. A short loop of Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddies plays loudly enough for all to hear. (Happily, it does not include Dino's "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie....") One dining room wall sports large modern paintings. The other is covered with wine racks, although the abbreviated wine list indicates that Via Italia emptied the cellar for its Encinitas location. Also missing, happily, is Maurizio, the abrasive former mâitre d', who went home to Italy. The waitstaff is more cordial now and more in tune with the genial captain at the helm.

The menu remains genuinely Italian -- meaning, food like Italy's, not like, say, Buca di Beppo's. Don't ask for spaghetti with meatballs. Don't ask for pizza by the slice. The restaurant's in a mall, but they don't make mall grub.

You start, for instance, with house-made breads -- ciabatta, focaccia, or a combination of both, served with a sharp tomato dip. We began our foray into the menu with carpaccio di salmone -- a riveting slice of salmon cured with capers, dill, white onion slivers, salt, and olive oil, served over very fresh arugula leaves. I would judge by that arugula that any salad here would be worth a try.

The more filling polenta con funghi e salsiccia features crumbled Italian sausage meat and sautéed mushrooms in gorgonzola cream sauce, slathered over a slab of firm grilled polenta. "This tastes just like the cream of mushroom soup José cooked at Nostrana, but reduced from a soup to a sauce," said Dave approvingly. It was rich indeed, although I'd have liked the polenta a little crisper on top. In carciofi dell'orto artichoke hearts mingle with a tart sauce of garlic, olive oil, and wine. I liked the combination better after the leftovers had spent a night on my kitchen counter, letting the flavors mellow and soak the 'choke.

Cucina's wood-fired Italian-style pizzas, still done Via Italia-style, aren't merely thin in the foldable New York style. They're as skinny as Kate Moss but as agreeably stacked as Gisele Bündchen -- not too much or too little, just enough to be perfectly luscious. About ten inches across, they're a perfect entrée for one or a shared appetizer for four. The specials list included our choice that evening, pizza topped with puffs of mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) covered with long, thick slices of imported Parma prosciutto, cut from the center of the leg where the meat is leanest and most tender. The thinnest slick of tomato sauce separated these toppings from the crust. No garbage-mouth here: Real Italian cooking stands for moderation in all things -- except flavor.

The current menu offers more pasta than meat or fish entrées, although for a small surcharge you can add grilled chicken, shrimp, or salmon to any of the pastas or salads. The house lasagna proved splendid. The noodles are unmistakably hand-rolled, as thin and soft as wonton skins, drinking up the rich flavors of the fillings. The bottom layer of noodles supported a gooey mix of melted mozzarella, ricotta, and scamorza (smoked mozzarella). The upper level brandished coarse-ground beef and Italian sausage, with their fat cooked off in advance. The topping was a velvety mixture of béchamel (white sauce) mixed with tomato sauce. The dish is sumptuous, but the overall effect was pleasingly light. Unlike Italian-American lasagna, you can enjoy it without fear of waddling home. All the ravioli choices and pappardelle (wide pasta ribbons) feature house-made pasta and on that ground alone are worth ordering.

Gnocchi, too, were reasonably airy -- if not clouds, then pillows, free of the gumminess that plagues so many local renditions. We chose the evening's special version, which came robed in a silky mascarpone and walnut cream sauce that was thoroughly addictive. "I have to stop eating this!" said Marty, pushing the plate aside. "Resistance is futile," my partner murmured as he speared another piece.

Veal piccata offered thickish medallions with capers and lemon white-wine sauce. Although salty and chewy, the meat at least didn't taste like Simulac, the fake-milk taste of formula-fed Provimi veal -- or else the tart sauce erased any bottle-fed flavor. Alongside were crisp cooked carrots, string beans, and interesting mashed potatoes flavored with roasted garlic, rosemary, and filet mignon au jus. Cioppino, fisherman's stew, held a cauldron's worth of shrimp, mussels, clams, and salmon in a smooth, garlicky white-wine tomato sauce with a dash of butter. It's less acidic than the San Francisco "Wharf" version, albeit also bereft of the latter's crab. We loved the sauce, and the fish and shrimp were fine, but the mussels and clams were overcooked.

For dessert, the tiramisu was ethereal enough to overcome its cliché status. The chocolate mousse was served over mascarpone cream, the slightly tart cheese playing off the sweetness of the chocolate. Crema caramela, Italian flan, had a touch of semolina in the custard, lending it a cheesecake-like texture. Desserts change frequently. A sometime-special that chef Flores cooked at Nostrana is millefoglie, airy puff pastry layered with Chantilly cream -- if it's among the evening's choices, don't miss the chance to grab one.

As we enjoyed our desserts, we spotted one diner at the next table running over to next-door Starbucks and returning with paper cups -- just as we were savoring the excellent house espresso. Mall mentality, I guess.

If you liked Via Italia, you'll still feel at home with the food at Cucina Italiana. Chef Flores has kept much of the menu and cooks in the same style, and I can't believe you'll mourn the lack of headwaiter Maurizio. If you liked Trattoria Nostrana -- well, you're probably on the phone already, setting up your next dinner date.


Chef José Flores comes from a restaurant family in San Luís Potosi in central Mexico. His parents sent him to study cooking at the CCA in San Francisco for two years, expecting him to come back and work at their restaurants. While he was studying and working in Northern California, he decided he preferred Italian food and liked living in the U.S. His sister lived in La Mesa, so he moved to San Diego. "My mom still calls me," he says. "She says, 'Hey, what's going on? I'm waiting for you!' I say, 'Never mind! I'm staying in America and I'm opening my own business.'"

After years of cooking at Trattoria I Trulli in Encinitas and Via Italia at both its locations, he opened his own Trattoria Nostrana at the outer reaches of La Mesa/Fletcher Hills. "But it was too far away from downtown. I wanted to open a place in La Jolla, but the lease was too expensive," he says. "I sold [Nostrana] so I could move to Utah and open a restaurant there with a friend, but then I decided that it was too far away. Then Paolo, the owner of Via Italia, called me and said, 'Why don't you come to help me?' because he didn't have a chef here. I was looking for a place to buy in Poway, but last September he decided to sell the location in Clairemont because he'd moved to Encinitas and it was too long to commute. I told him, 'Then let me have it!' and he sold it to me. I live in Clairemont, five blocks away, so this is like my second home. I'm married with two beautiful daughters, and after the lunch hour, I can pick the girls up from school and drive them home, so we have some time together.

"We changed the name to Cucina Italiana. The menu was already a little shorter than it used to be, and we made a few changes. I put in a few dishes of my own. We're talking with people who used to come to Nostrana and finding out what dishes from there they want me to cook here and what dishes people liked most at Via Italia. I change my desserts every three or four days. I still buy my produce from Bellissima Produce -- I've been working with them for ten years, and they get me everything very fresh. I buy my fish and seafood in small quantities because I want to serve everything fresh, even if it means sometimes I run out of something."

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