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out of town guests requesting italian pasta dinner-ideas?

I have a group of friends coming to san diego, thinking about moving here, and celebrating a 30th birthday. Need to find an impressive, not too expensive, high quality food italian restaurant in san diego. I realized I've never been out for pasta since moving here myself (make it myself)-so I'm wondering what suggestions there are?? we're willing to travel coronado to del mar (although, they're staying in the gaslamp). so far I've come up with: bencotto, trattoria acqua, arrivedeci hillcrest....

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  1. Mama Mia in Pacific Beach

    Lorna's Italian Kitchen in University City

    Cafe Bella Italia in Pacific Beach

    Cucina Urbana at 5th and Laurel (California influenced Italian).

    Lorna's Italian Kitchen
    3945 Governor Dr, San Diego, CA 92122

    1 Reply
    1. re: Captain Jack

      I would skip Lorna's personally. Been there twice and was really not impressed with the quality. They seem to be more about quantity than quality and I would bet most of their food comes straight off the Sysco truck.

    2. Italian is really weak in SD. Arrivedeci is ok, I'd avoid Mama Mia's, too inconsistant and the staff can be a little crude.

      2 Replies
      1. re: cstr

        i know that italian is not a good SD choice, but my hands are tied-thats why i'm looking for advice

        1. re: smile81

          Of all the italian places I've eaten at in SD I would say Trattoria Acqua was my favorite. It's a bit pricey but the food is good. I like the arribiata pasta. The osso buco was also pretty good although I think that is a seasonal dish.

          Trattoria Acqua
          1298 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037

        1. re: Fake Name

          Cucina Urbana - especially for a 30th birthday party. Place just seems "festive"

          1. re: Ewilensky

            Agreed, Cucina Urbana is going to be the best place that can accommodate a group, is furnished well, has a generally interesting menu, and can be fun. Leans more to the local/homemade foodie stuff too.

        2. Bencotto makes better pasta than Cucina Urbana, in my opinion. Very good service, but the waiter I had did a sneaky upselling of a few items that I would not have ordered, making for a $15 more expensive lunch bill. I pointed this out to him, and Valentina (the co-owner and PR lady) removed the charges from the bill and apologized for the "miscommunication."

          1. I would also suggest Bencotto and Cucina Urbana. CU would be a fun party atmosphere, but rsvp at least a week in advance. Trattoria Acqua has a brand new chef that has really dropped the ball IMHO.

            Trattoria Acqua
            1298 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037

            1 Reply
            1. re: foodiechick

              Hmm, I wasn't aware that Trattoria Acqua has a new chef. The couple times I ate there were a few years ago so definitely would have been with the old chef.

              Trattoria Acqua
              1298 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037

            2. Off the beaten path, but totally worth seeking out - http://www.anticatrattoria.com/ - Trattoira Antica in La Mesa (Lake Murray & Baltimore). Really, truly good.

              3 Replies
              1. re: DiningDiva

                Also off the beaten is i Trulli in Encinitas. It's about 20 miles away, but very good regional Italian.

                1. re: DiningDiva

                  I agree. Not what one would expect in a strip mall in La Mesa. I would have never gone in without a friends recommendation.

                  I'd also try Buon Appetito in LIttle Italy. Always a solid choice. It has a nice wine bar next door (connected). You can then go to Extraodinary Desserts afterwards.

                  Buon Appetito
                  1609 India St, San Diego, CA 92101

                  1. I would 2nd or 3rd Antica Trattoria.

                    Antica Trattoria
                    5654 Lake Murray Blvd La, Mesa, CA

                    1. I would avoid Cucina Urbana like the plague. Pizzas are terrible...they obviously use sugar in their dough, which accounts for the awful burnt taste. It is not a wood fired oven (just a gas oven with "brick flooring"), and it has none of the delicious charred taste you get from a woodfired pizza. The place feels like a chain (even though it is not), with cheesy decor and a general tacky feeling. Also, the menu is anything but inventive. I went in and they were serving roasted strawberry fregolata in February! February! Where in god's name are you getting strawberries in February?? There is no focus on regional produce, and the lack of creativity is appaling.

                      Try Bencotto. Pastas are good, salumi plate is delicious (and perfectly sliced on an antique style hand slicer), and apps are okay.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: boltsinken

                        "Where in god's name are you getting strawberries in February??"

                        North county. We've been getting very good local strawberries in the winter.

                      2. You might try Pomidoro on Scott Street in Point Loma. Trattoria type menu. I think it's owned by the same family that owns Arrivederci in Hillcrest. Italian staff. Pretty good food (especially by SD standards for Italian restaurants). Moderate prices.

                        Point Loma Cafe
                        4856 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92106

                        1. Cucina Urbana is one of the few restaurants I have been to (anywhere) that pulls off Italian "with a twist." They understand Italian ingredients and cooking methods.

                          Avoid Bencotto at all costs. The "choose your own pasta" concepts says it all. It is a prime example of San Diego's cluelessness when it comes to Italian food.

                          Arrivederci is hit and miss but probably won't be able to handle the large group.

                          10 Replies
                          1. re: mangiatore

                            I haven't been to Bencotto or CU but it is interesting to see mangiatore's and boltsinken's opinions:

                            "I would avoid Cucina Urbana like the plague"
                            "Avoid Bencotto at all costs."

                            I guess that only leaves Buca di Beppo ;)

                            1. re: honkman

                              I have not heard one good reason to avoid bencotto (from someone who has actually eaten there and had specific complaints), therefore I'm inclined to try the newbie in our dining scene.

                            2. re: mangiatore

                              Saying that choosing what type of pasta you prefer shows "cluelessness when it comes to italian food" is unfair. If someone prefers al dente pasta, they can get it there. If they prefer handmade pasta, which is softer, and less "toothsome," they can get it there. And having the ability to choose how your pasta is sauced is fine. It is not trying to be haute cuisine, far from it. It is trying to be a casual everyday eatery.

                              However, saying that Cucina Urbana pulls off Italian "with a twist" is misleading. Nothing about that menu is imaginative or creative...it has merely been poached from countless nouveau Italian restaurants all across the country. Short Rib Paparadelle...stuffed fried squash blossoms...veal scallopini! My god, it is a veritable cornucopia of cleverness! And no, it is not pulled off well. It is pulled off in about the same manner as Sammy's was pulled off when it first opened. Fake woodfired pizzas, no respect for local ingredients and the like!

                              1. re: boltsinken

                                I dined at Cucina Urbana a couple of weeks ago. My "chicken fried" sweetbreads appetizer was outstanding, and my roasted rabbit with hand rolled cavatelli was excellent as well. I even really enjoyed my mini potato focaccia with sun dried tomato pesto. Indicating that CU sucks is very misleading.

                                1. re: boltsinken

                                  You are a bit off the mark on your facts. Although some of the dishes may not be new or cutting edge, many of the ingredients used at Cucina Urbana are locally sourced (including produce from the fantastic Suzie's Farm).

                                  1. re: boltsinken

                                    Like Bencotto, Cucina Urbana is a twist on Italian food. The two times I have been to Cucina Urbana, they have at least shown that they understand how to *cook* Italian food. They pulled off creamy risotto (though the presentation on a cutting board was odd). They cooked egg pasta properly and paired it with a fitting sauce. The lentils were all dente. They paired the ingredients well.

                                    I cannot say the same for Bencotto. The gnocchi were a big, gummy, lukewarm disaster (albeit served with an authentic gorgonzola); they ruined the bresaola with a sweet, gooey balsamic mess; the amatriciana had nothing -- and I mean nothing -- to do with amatriciana (it shared one thing in common: tomato); the lamb osso buco was gamey and otherwise flavorless. To top it off, they come to each table and spray vinegar on a plate (served with olive oil for the bread) so that the entire seating area reeks of vinegar. Shall I go on?

                                    Btw, I recommend ordering pizza at a pizzeria.

                                    1. re: mangiatore

                                      Vivid description of your experience at Bencotto, and very different from my own. Since I am a proponent of strictly judicious use of balsamic vinegar, I asked the waiter not to add it to the plate of oil for dipping bread. Was there pancetta or guanciale in your amatriciana? Describing your osso buco as gamey yet flavorless seems a tad contradictory. They didn't spray vinegar on my plate. Perhaps we should both try the place again...


                                      1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                        Re: the vinegar, i would have done the same as you if I had noticed before they started spraying away.

                                        Re: the osso buco, I said gamey and OTHERWISE flavorless. It just tasted like a hunk of meat, and not a particularly tasty one.

                                        As far as the amatriciana, I believe it was pancetta (I realize some say the proper preparation is with guanciale but it's served with both -- and more often with pancetta -- in Italy and I think it's fine with either), but the flavor of pancetta was barely detectable. However, the problem was the total lack of spice. It tasted like a relatively bland tomato sauce.

                                  2. re: mangiatore

                                    Yes, the choose your own pasta/sauce matrix thing at Bencotto is off-putting for an upscale casual place, but what pasta it is! Even though you have to make a few choices, good ones will be rewarding. And this should be a snap for you as a person who has spent a good amount of time in Italy. Linguine with their sausage and red gravy? Heavens no. But with their homemade rigatoni, delicious.

                                    I don't really think San Diego clueless where Italian is concerned, just a lot of average places. But the handful of good ones are worthwhile. Remember: moglie e buoi di paesi tuoi.


                                    1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                      I can't argue with anything you said, SaltyRaisins. That's what I tried to do. The cipolline were good, the salumi were pretty decent, and I figured I had a good shot with gnocchi alla gorgonzola. The rest was a mess.

                                  3. I would add Baci's or Piatti's to the mix..
                                    Tratttoria Acqua has the views of the ocean and could be nice for out of town guests.
                                    Vigilucci's is another thought in LJ.

                                    6 Replies
                                    1. re: Beach Chick

                                      Save your money, Old Spaghetti Factory in San Marcos, its not going to get much better than that. Even Cheesecake factory has some decent pastas. As stated Italian food is pathetic in S.D.
                                      I have not been to Lorna's for a long time but had some pretty good meals there.
                                      Another option is buy some pasta at Assenti's on India street and cook it at home.
                                      I miss Stefano's and the brunch buffet at Di Lucas.

                                      Old Spaghetti Factory
                                      111 N Twin Oaks Valley Rd, San Marcos, CA 92069

                                        1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                          I decided to check out the menu at Bencotto since it seems so popular.
                                          First of all I don't like pasta with cream sauce or greasy meats.
                                          That covers 6 out of 8 of their sauces. That leaves pesto and arribbiata.
                                          I make pesto at home all the time, had it tonight with artichokes, peas and roasted peppers. Arribbiata can be good if is not to angry. I noticed a trend years ago of Italian restaurants serving mostly cream based sauces. I don't know where it came from but to me it is not Italian and I don't care for it at all. Even pesto is often found with cream in it which is an abomination.

                                          1. re: pantani

                                            But you haven't been to Bencotto. So why the rejection? It's not the best italian food I've ever had. Not by a longshot. In fact, I consider pasta something that is best made at home. My discussion with mangiatore about the particulars of our experiences at Bencotto was just that- not really a glowing endorsement. And there was no greasy meat in my pasta- just very good sausage, and my sauce was non troppo arrabiata. Better than anything at the Old Spaghetti Factory or Cheescake Factory for sure.

                                            You're so right about Assenti.


                                            1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                              Roberto and Luigi are the coolest guys. We are sooo lucky to have Assenti's in town. I'm picking up 4 pounds of paparadelle this morning to pair with my scratch-made ragu Bolognese tonight.

                                              1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                                Point taken.
                                                I might give it a try, but there are only two sauces I would consider and both of those are often done poorly. It would be nice if they offered some vegetable type sauces, mushroom, eggplant, artichoke. etc?
                                                Probably once a week I make pesto with artichoke hearts and peas.
                                                I picked this up from eating at Stefano's many years ago.
                                                This the kind of Italian food that is missing in restaurants these days.
                                                Now a days its all about cream, sausage and pancetta.
                                                For a place with so much hype I would expect more.

                                      1. Okay, I haven't eaten at Bencotto or Cucina Urbana, so I can't add my two cents to the bloodbath below, but I'd go with Arrivederci in Hillcrest. Probably the best, or one of the best Italian places in San Diego. But, of course, the parking sucks and the place is tiny.

                                        You could also go with Il Fornaio in Coronado. Yes, its a chain, the food is okay - akin to what you'd find in the Gaslamp, but there's ample parking and the view of San Diego's Downtown is unbelievable. And to get there, you don't have to drive necessarily, you can take the ferry.

                                        So, if you're looking for really good food (and then an opportunity to go out drinking afterwards), I'd go with Arrivederci. If you're looking for a more relaxed, romantic atmosphere, I'd go with Il Fornaio.

                                        Il Fornaio
                                        1333 1st St, Coronado, CA 92118

                                        1. Went to Bencotto again tonight, this time with a large group- I think ten. We'd had our apps, been drinking a fair amount of wine, when we heard fire alarms from the kitchen.

                                          Apparently, their fryer set off a sensor and not only the alarm but the sprinklers. 4 or 5 fire units responded, and the place was shut for the night.

                                          The proprietor, over our objections, would not allow us to pay for the wine and apps we'd already enjoyed. We tipped heavily and left.

                                          But we will be back- it was a class move.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: Fake Name

                                            Great story. Class act! Want to go for celebratory dinner on Monday, hope they have reopened by then.

                                            1. re: foodiechick

                                              They should.

                                              There was no fire- we were told the cook watched as a little teeny speck of food popped out of the fryer and landed right on the sensor. But once that started the alarm and the fire control system in the kitchen, all hell broke loose. The interior of the place looked like a disco because of the fire truck strobe lights outside. Fully suited fireman with breathing gear were tramping through the place amidst applause from the patrons.

                                              Our server told us what had happened, and she expected a delay in our service, but then returned and said the health department had to clear the kitchen before they could serve again.

                                            2. re: Fake Name

                                              Best posting ever.

                                              Were your apps worthy? Kidding.


                                              1. re: Fake Name

                                                Love that story Fakey!
                                                What a class act on the restaurants end..

                                              2. update: we went to bencotto. The restaurant seated us right away and was quite efficient at handling such a large group (10). We tried several first courses and entrees, no room left for dessert. I highly recommend the fried asparagus special, salumi plate, and pappardelle pasta with sausage in spicy tomato sauce-excellent! my husband had a ravioli in cream sauce on special but wasn't as impressed. overall, it was a lively environment, nice for celebrating, and decent value priced food. I'm the pickiest for quality and thought there were hits and misses. our out of town guests all enjoyed their dinners and several even commented the next day how good dinner was. -1 for expensive wine list (maybe to make up for lower priced entrees?)

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: smile81

                                                  glad to hear it worked out. I like the Urban Cucina wine list, great prices :)