Let's get one thing straight: eggplant parmigiana—at least the breaded version we know on these shores—is not an Italian dish. American-Italian? Yes. Italian? Not on your life. And if eggplant parm ain't Italian, what about an eggplant parm sandwich? Fuggedaboutit.
Similarly, there's not much that's Italian about Caps Pizza & Bar (1428 First Ave., Downtown). Italian-American? Yeah. Italian? No. You got a problem widdat?
There is, however, one thing at Caps that any Italian mamma would be proud of: the marinara. It's glorious, the best I've tasted in San Diego. It's a simple sauce—frankly, what you probably think of as "tomato sauce"—canned tomatoes, onion, garlic, herbs and olive oil. Many Italian mothers add sugar or red wine to adjust the acidity, and there are variations involving capers, olives or various spices. But this exquisitely simple sauce is, as the San Diego Italian dining scene shows, difficult to master. Caps gets it right.
That marinara is the key to Caps' eggplant-parm sandwich. A truly Italian eggplant parmigiana is based on wonderfully fresh eggplant, creamy-fresh mozzarella and sweet-fresh basil. The commonality: fresh. The key exclusions are parmesan cheese and breading. Breading is not what the Italian dish is about; it's about the simple combination of three fresh ingredients and marinara sauce. The combination yields a synergy.
Caps' eggplant-parm sandwich, on the other hand, is breaded, fried and uses ingredients—eggplant, mozzarella and parmesan "cheese" (likely out of the familiar green can)—that are far from the best available products. It is, frankly, anti-Italian. But that marinara sauce is brilliant and pulls together all of the ingredients, soaking into the flaky sub roll and making the entire sandwich one big whole that's significantly greater than the sum of its parts. There's absolutely no way that this thing should work. But, surprisingly, spectacularly, it does. It looks like a hot mess, and feels like one in your hands, and somehow that's what makes it great.
The meatball sandwich is also a hot mess—it shouldn't work and it doesn't. The meatballs are neither adequately caramelized nor simmered low and slow in that great marinara sauce. As a result, they're just flaccid, relatively tasteless meatballs swimming in sauce in structurally challenged bread.
Caps' prides itself on pizzas, and it produces an excellent version of the "San Diego-style" thick and doughy pies à la Fillipi's. The style is hardly my favorite. But that marinara sauce is so good that even otherwise ordinary pizzas and pastas are enjoyable.
Also great at Caps is the Mediterranean salad, with cucumbers, red onions, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, marinated artichokes, feta cheese, kalamata olives, avocado and either grilled chicken strips or shrimp. A Greek-style salad dressing is delicious and highly addictive. If, for some reason, you don't order the eggplant-parm sandwich, the Mediterranean salad is a good alternative.
But why wouldn't you order that eggplant parm? Come zee bell! It's a beautiful thing.