The joke starts “In heaven, the chefs are Italian…” and for reasons beyond me San Diego is becoming more like that good place. Italian restaurants are popping up and down the southern most coast of California. Many, such as Ciccia Osteria, offer a thoughtful vegan menu.
Chef Francesca Penocelli hovers over the desserts, lovingly tending to a gluten-free vegan chocolate cake and chiming in as guests ponder the counter-service menus. As I order my carefully considered dishes Francesca leans in to the tell me there is also a special vegan ravioli—stuffed with greens and tofu—but the weight of the line forming behind me is too much to bare an order change.
We are assigned a table along the fence looking out on Barrio Logan. In time a bread basket arrives with a side of cheese. When we reject the cheese the waiter brings a dish of olive oil, balsamic, and tomatoes flecked with mint leaves.
The generous Mista ($8) salad arrives wet in a light lemon vinaigrette with carrots and beets ribbons tossed with supremed oranges, almonds, and briny olives. It’s a good salad that I consume too fast in fear that our pasta will arrives to no space on the table. It was an unnecessary move, the kitchen timing was perfect.
Truffle oil is essentially western MSG so it seemed wise to place my money on the Conchiglie ($13). Tender sea shell-shaped pasta under too many wild mushrooms for the price with basil and the scent of truffles. If you order this, save some bread and don’t let the flavors glistening on the bottom of the bowl go to waste.
Saffron is another hard-to-not-order seasoning. Thick curls of pasta in a saffron sauce, plump with pureed roasted pepper and its own water, fill the bowl of Sombreri ($13). Confit sundried tomato, a few pine nuts, and a dusting of parsley close out the dish.
We ended with a Chocolate Coconut Milk Panna Cotta ($5). “Something a little more common” winks Francesca. “No!” I tell her “Vegan panna cotta is rare. Thank you so much for offering it.” We smile at each other as I wander out the door.