This Little Piggy — Tre Porcellini

Tre Porcellini's decor is either Milanese moderno or Ikea pragmatico.
  • Tre Porcellini's decor is either Milanese moderno or Ikea pragmatico.

The very week that I received the elaborate press kit from Tre Porcellini (which means “three little pigs”), Barbarella mentioned the restaurant favorably in her column. Knowing her and David’s fine palates, I looked at the enticing menu and figured I’d better scamper over there before it was mobbed by hungry, huffing, puffing wolves. It seemed an apt place for Samurai Jim, Michelle, and I to hold a temporary farewell dinner for our friend “M.E.,” who’s heading off to a Baja fishing village for a year to work on a film she’s making.

The restaurant is on the previous site of Chris Walsh’s Bite but looks larger and holds 100 if you include the heated front patio. The decor features white plastic chairs and white tables, plus a few four-top booths with leather (or pleather) seats. I’m not sure whether to call the style Milanese moderno or Ikea pragmatico.

The chef, Roberto Gerbino, comes from Catania in Sicily and most recently cooked at several branches of Il Fornaio. His sophisticated menu blends Sicily with more northern regions — classics and some culinary clichés, most executed with personal twists, plus a few apparently original inventions. All the pasta, including the dried ones, are made in-house but the breads aren’t. By looks and taste, they probably come from nearby Bread & Cie.

The breadbasket holds a few slices of savory olive bread, along with two types of baguettes, accompanied by a pleasing bagna of chopped tomatoes in a mild vinaigrette. I like this much better than the usual lazy blend of undistinguished extra-virgin olive oil oversplashed with balsamic. It’s not only a sign of serious attention to the diner’s pleasure — this bagna also tastes good.

An appetizer of Polenta al Cinghiale not only delights the palate but wraps itself like a fuzzy blanket around the heart: it offers soft, creamy polenta topped by a rich tomato-tinged ragu of chopped wild boar, wild mushrooms, and sweet diced carrots with shaved parmigiano on top. One unshared order of this ($10.50) would easily make a singleton’s whole, blissful main course (unless that person was a real hog), not merely by its generous size but in the deep satisfaction it affords. You feel like you have seriously eaten — not scarfed down, chowed down, or gobbled up, but savored something wonderful.

The burrata — young mozzarella, its center still unset — didn’t seem all that young to me; it was nearly firm, but we enjoyed its fresh creamy flavor and its posse of thin-sliced red and yellow vine-ripened tomatoes bathed in balsamic reduction alongside a flare-up of arugula. When this little piggie went to market, he bought the best available: the chef had obviously shelled out for some serious tomatoes, as one has to do to get lovable love-apples in winter.

Salmone Affumicato, cold-smoked salmon served over arugula, was rather coarse in texture, saltier than most of its ilk, and sliced thickly, compared to the translucency of its packaged Nova, Norwegian, and Scottish cousins. The menu specifies that it’s served with dill crème fraîche. That didn’t arrive, and the salmon needed it for lightness and contrast.

The Frittura Mista (mixed fry) of calamari, shrimp, and artichoke included two slices of artichoke and a total of two small shrimp — all the rest were squid rings and tentacles — with a lively, tart, caper-strewn aioli for dipping. It’s good, it’s light, but for a fried dish, we much preferred the scintillating side dish of truffled polenta “fries.” Firm but buoyant polenta fingers are imbued with truffle oil (and perhaps some shavings, or maybe those were just bits of parsley darkening with the cooking). It’s almost as seductive as a cornmeal version of the great garbanzo-flour panisse served at Cavaillon. These come with the same sparky aioli as the fried squid.

A tempting house specialty appetizer we didn’t try was “Mac and Cheese” risotto with parmigiano, aged white cheddar, champagne, and truffle oil. Farther down the menu, among the pastas, there’s also a specialty risotto with strawberries, shrimps, champagne, and parmigiano. Another specialty we skipped was a lively sounding vegan couscous salad with veggies, raisins, and a lemon-mint vinaigrette.

The wine list is a barrel of fun for explorers, with most bottles under $40, covering numerous regions. We began with a delicious white Torrontés ($21) from Mendoza, the Napa of Argentina. For our entrée wine I should probably have ordered a red (e.g., the Nero d’Avola from Sicily) but I couldn’t resist the rare chance to try a Sicilian white, La Segreto Bianco ($26), with the aroma of cold water running over clean river stones — although in the end, the Torrontés (distant whiff of a fruit orchard) seemed a little tastier.

We split our entrées between two pastas and two protein dishes. One pasta, which was really both pasta and protein, nearly rivaled the wild boar polenta. Ravioli con l’Osso consists of house-made ravioli filled with braised osso buco meat (veal short ribs) in a red-wine reduction and mushroom sauce — with a great, big, juicy marrow bone alongside and a little fork to tease out the unctuous contents. For once, enough marrow for four of us to get a few bites each! Even without that, the ravioli were delizioso with the flavors of wine-braised tender meat. Our gracious waiter seemed delighted to create a separate doggie-box for the actual doggie in our foodie family, Jim’s glam blonde housemate, Ginger, the little piggy who stayed home.

In the potato gnocchi with Italian sausage, porcini, and marinara cream sauce, the sausage, made in Vernon, California, was acceptable but not as good as our own Pete’s Meats’ Sicilian sweet fennel sausage, which would have made a real difference. The gnocchi flopped heavily, and heavily is the word. When I come back, I’ll be most tempted by the house specialty of tagliolini neri, pasta dyed black with cuttlefish ink served with a seafood ragu, and carbonara made with guanciale, delicious smoked hog jaw meat.

This little piggy ate roast pork. The obvious signature main course is Trio Porcellini, a combination of slow-roasted pork shoulder, a pork chop milanese (breaded and fried), and glazed pork belly. None of us made room in our appetites to seriously address the milanese. (Does anybody actually like this? If so, why?) The shoulder was tasty and tender. The glazed belly was a small sweet rectangle of crisped fat (mainly). I remember some small potatoes on the side...nothing interesting; the shoulder makes the dish worth ordering, and the glazed belly offers a little nip of nutritional sin.

We wanted a seafood dish, but the catch of the day was swordfish. At best, I find it dry, but this time of year, for some reason internet “fish sites” warn it’s carrying heavy loads of mercury in its flesh. Grazie, no. Pork-eschewing little piggies can choose gamberoni, large, tender prawns with a touch of brandy-caper cream sauce, served with a modest amount of simple, clean-tasting spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and oil) with a sprinkle of fresh herbs.

Dessert was a small delight: we ordered the Sicilian-style cannoli, which arrived as four miniature rolls of crisp, pock-marked cannoli cookie-pastry with a dreamy orange-scented, orange-colored filling of creamed ricotta, flashed with candied cherries and a few pistachios and dark chocolate chips. They were some of the most soulful cannoli I’ve tasted since leaving New York’s Little Italy. Even in this modernized, miniaturized version, they respected the ancient truths of the dessert. And not only did my espresso (and M.E.’s cappuccino) arrive with dessert as requested, but the espresso was perfect, with crema on top, deep mellow flavor, dark but not bitter. The bill was pretty reasonable, too, for a pig-out review dinner (about $50 each for three courses and two bottles of wine). After all that rewarding food, this little piggy went “Whee! Whee! Whee!” all the way home.

Hospital Food, and What to Do About It
A dear colleague at the Reader who passed away last week recently posed the issue: What do foodies do about hospital food? And since I haven’t totally used up my allotted space, here are some ideas.

“First of all,” wrote my colleague, “you will never eat as well in a hospital as you do outside. That said, realize that you are in the hospital to get well, and getting well is work. So is eating hospital food. When they serve it, steel yourself, and get it inside your body where it will do some good.

“The first thing to remember is to bring your own condiments. My own survival kit contains a box of Equal packets (for cereal, oatmeal, whatever), a bottle of…my favorite hot sauce, and random packets of ketchup, salad dressing, and parmesan cheese. The only way to get through hospital scrambled eggs is with some ketchup and hot sauce.” (I’d add to the condiments list some soy sauce packets from Chinese restaurants and a tiny bottle of balsamic.)

You gotta have friends. When they say, “What can I do for you?” say, “No flowers, no candy — bring dinner.” They can get takeout from restaurants you like, but choose carefully: the burger you love when healthy may seem unbearably greasy when you’re sick. Consider Asian comfort foods like Vietnamese pho bo and pho ga (noodle soups, beef or chicken-based), or good Chinese jook (aka congee, rice soup), if you can find it, or Mexican chicken-based soups. As you recover, look to Mexican seafood cauldrons like siete mares and vuelva a la vida. If you don’t cook but have advance notice that you’re going to be hospitalized, consider buying large takeout portions of not-too-spoilable soups to bring to the hospital in a plastic container. (See #4, below).

If you have a phone in your room, you can get delivery on your own from nearby pizzerias, etc. My colleague said they’ll often deliver right to your room. If you know you’re about to be hospitalized, before you go, check out which restaurants in the hospital neighborhood will do this.

Most hospital wards have a fridge and a microwave. The one time I was hospitalized for several days at Kaiser SF (at the time, home of some the worst hospital food in America), I spent a few hours a couple of days ahead making from scratch a gallon of low-salt chicken soup with matzoh balls (Jewish dumplings). And, of course, I made friends with the head nurse so I could use the ward kitchenette. When I was well enough to walk, I was well enough to nuke myself some wholesome home-made soup, as opposed to the horrifying sodium-bombs the hospital was serving.

Conspire in advance with your doctor to get onto the low-sodium (or “heart-healthy”) diet plan, even if you don’t need it. At least at Kaiser, this substitutes sweet flavors like fruit purées for their usual chokingly salty stuff. Generally, the food is lighter, and you don’t want heavy meaty stuff when bed-bound.

If you can, choose your hospital. My colleague reported that Sharp Grossmont is the pits for food. (Sharp Coronado is a little better, or maybe it just has better vibes.) Kaiser Northern California has reputedly improved, but I don’t know about the SoCal version. Cedars-Sinai in L.A. has a varied menu that even includes chicken soup with matzoh balls. Probably not as good as D.Z. Akin’s or homemade, but any chicken soup is better than none. (Although it doesn’t do us much good down here, the best hospital food in California is at French Hospital in San Francisco. The food is actually French, and unless medically forbidden, includes a glass of wine with dinner. A very non-foodie acquaintance was in there for ten days, and when she came out she said it was “the best food I’ve ever eaten.”)

Suggestions are welcome, from what to eat to what hospital to wrangle yourself into. Let’s hear it. ■

Tre Porcellini

★★★ (Very Good)

1417 University Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-294-9201;

HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m.; weekends until 11:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers and salads $5–$13.50; pastas and entrées $12–$24; sides $4–7; desserts $7; three-course weeknight prix-fixe dinner $30.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Modern Italian with Sicilian roots, all pasta made in-house. Global choice of over 50 wines, 20 by the glass, most bottles under $35.
PICK HITS: Polenta al Cinghiale (soft polenta with wild boar ragu); truffled polenta fries; Burrata; Ravioli con l’Osso; Trio Porcellini (pork plate); Gamberoni; Cannoli.
NEED TO KNOW: Street parking (in Hillcrest — ha ha!). Rugless room with hard chairs gets very loud when even half full. Sufficient choices for lacto-vegetarians; scant vegan choices but some dishes adaptable to “hold the cheese, please.” Casual atmosphere, but reserve, as crowds are already gathering.

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Naomi, You keep getting the explanation of Burrata wrong. It has nothing to do with being creamy because it is young. The center is just the left over curds that don't hold together when the Mozz is made. Instead of just dumping that stuff out some enterprising person just started wrapping this "waste" in the next day’s mozz. Classic old school way to turn trimmings into cash.

Naomi, nice piece. braised osso buco meat (veal short ribs) should read (veal shank). I really like your writting and also look forward to more guest pieces.

Bad news: The chef has gone back to Il Fornaio.

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