Nov. 9 2012 05:31 PM

Stick with the pastas, especially the mushroom gnocchi

Cicciotti’s comforting gnocchi
Photo by Jenny Montgomery

Sometimes I demand perfection from a restaurant. I want the whole experience: groundbreaking flavors, flawless service and a creative atmosphere. But other times, I just want the Three C's (which I just made up right now and am hoping becomes a thing): calm, cozy and carbs. Cicciotti's in Cardiff (there's a whole bunch more c's right there!) hits those three beats for me.

Cicciotti's (1933 San Elijo Ave.) is a sweet little cottage of an Italian restaurant, hidden in plain sight on one of Cardiff-by-the- Sea's main drags. Its dining room is essentially a breezy covered porch, an absolute necessity when you're within smelling distance of the Pacific Ocean. It's a forgettable but friendly atmosphere, and not the kind of place that you necessarily need to cross the county to try—you probably have a just-as-tasty little Italian gem near where you live. However, up here in the northern hinterlands, Cicciotti's is exactly the kind of place you need to remember when you find yourself admiring the waves and your belly is telling you that it wants something delicious and uncomplicated.

Cicciotti's is a quaint outpost with a surprisingly huge menu. I love options, but at some point, my eyeballs glaze over after reading the 17th permutation of pasta-and-meat-sauce. Yes, there is a bounty of pasta options to choose from, but if you're a fan of fungus, go straight to the gnocchi with mushrooms and a cognac cream sauce. 'Tis the season of gourds, but the earthiness of this dish pushes all the right autumnal buttons as the sun sets earlier and the temps drop into the oh-so-chilly 60s. It's a challenge to elevate a dish of starchy gnocchi to something transcendent (these aren't), but it's also hard to really screw up a dish of dumplings in cream sauce. Cicciotti's gnocchi are chewy without being gummy—a warm bowl of comfort.

In the meantime, I'd also like to direct you to the lasagna: tender and cheesy, with a bright tomato sauce and a fresh-from-the-oven quality that's far superior to the dense slabs cranked out by lesser Italian parlors. (One of these days, I'll convince San Diegans that they don't really like the food at Filippi's.)

The chicken picatta was fair to middling, nothing to fawn over. I did face a head-scratching moment when a bowl of extra parmesan was brought to our table—filled with the powdered stuff you find in a can. That's barely acceptable in my own home, let alone at a restaurant where I'm hoping to get a meal a little better than I can whip up myself. I'm not saying you have to go high end and bust out the Parmigiano Reggiano, but something a bit more perishable than dehydrated can cheese should be absolutely standard.

You won't find perfection at Cicciotti's, but maybe that's not what you should be looking for every night. 

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