June 28 2013 06:01 PM

It's all about the freshly made noodles in Hillcrest

Butternut-squash ravioli with an amaretto sage cream

During my junior year at UCSD, I spent a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. I lived with Rosanna Galgani, a silver-haired octogenarian who began and ended her days with a cup of black coffee. Dinners with Rosanna were always multi-course meals revolving around pasta: Springy fusilli often met blobs of oily pesto; spaghetti joined a simple marinara. The fresh noodles—soft, tender and perfectly chewy—were delightful enough to stand alone and didnít require cover-up in the form of sauce overload. 

I quickly realized that I'd been approaching pasta with the wrong mentality all along. In my mind, the noodles merely existed as a vehicle for the rich, flavorful sauces. But it wasn't supposed to be that way. After all, when done right, the carby stuff needs only minimal dressing—maybe a knob of butter and a bit of salt—to taste complete. 

Fast forward a few years and I'm reminded of my Florentine discovery mid-bite at Busalacchi's A Modo Mio (3707 Fifth Ave.). The restaurant has been a Hillcrest fixture for more than 20 years, but its current location—roomy and dimly lit—is only a few years old. 

Joe Busalacchi is the Sicilian-born restaurateur behind the hefty Busalacchi empire, which oversees seven San Diego establishments, including Little Italy's Café Zucchero. I usually prefer exploring eateries that aren't part of mini-kingdoms, but a trusted friend's recommendation had me reconsidering. And so I pushed my qualms aside and went for a visit. 

I soon learned that if a menu boasts "Fresh Pasta Made Daily," you should always go for the pasta; otherwise, you'll end up regretting your decision. My mom definitely did. Her panko-crusted trout arrived with a chalky block of polenta and green beans. The fish dish was just OK, easily overshadowed by two solid pasta dishes. 

The gnocchi verde in an amatriciana sauce was the definite crowd favorite. Usually, my problem with restaurant orders of the potato dumplings is that they come out tough and tasteless. But the chubby morsels at Busalacchi's were soft without being mushy and flaunted hints of basil. Garlic slivers and fatty bits of pancetta completed the light sauce, which had tang but didn't overwhelm the gnocchi's subtle flavor.

The butternut-squash ravioli was another standout. The amaretto sage cream that capped the pasta was somehow even lovelier the next day, after a 30-second whirl in the microwave. A scattering of crushed hazelnuts added crunch to the buttery dish, which was my favorite of the bunch.

I also recommend ordering the grilled-polenta starter. The savory appetizer boasts oozy slabs of polenta swathed in a gorgonzola cream and topped with hunks of mushroom. The garlic bread was another sturdy choice: crispy and crackly with a soft, chewy center.

A tasty chocolate chip-studded cannoli concluded our meal, but I'll be back for the pasta. Both the gnocchi and the ravioli were strong enough to stand solo, and though the sauces added oomph, I'd be just as happy relishing the carbs with a dribble of olive oil and a few good handfuls of grated cheese. 

Write to minar@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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