America, it’s often forgotten, is a region of Italy…at least culinarily. Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Sicily feature unique, identifiable regional Italian cuisines. "Italian-American" may be even more distinct. It's with that in mind I went in search of San Diego's take on what some call "red sauce Italian."
Eggplant parmesan, garlic bread and spaghetti with meatballs may be what Americans think of as "Italian" but you won't find them in Italy. Italian-American cuisine is a hybrid of Southern (mostly) Italy's culinary traditions with American ingredients, wealth and urban reality. A food of poverty in which pasta was the star evolved into a plate showing off relative wealth in which the protein was the star. "A little sauce with your pasta" became "a little pasta with your sauce." Hence the term—oft uttered derisively—red sauce Italian.
Given the rich history of San Diego's Italian immigrant community, it should not come as a surprise we have many old-style Italian-American joints in town. In truth, none of San Diego's red sauce Italian spots come close to the heights of New York's Carbone Restaurant, but you can certainly get a sense of red sauce Italian food at The Venetian Restaurant (3663 Voltaire St.) in Point Loma. The Venetian is one of San Diego's oldest Italian-American places, dating to 1965.
There may be no better Italian-American dish in town then the Venetian's lemon butter scallops with fresh basil and tomatoes. The Parmesan (and it's "Parmesan," not "Parmigiano-Reggiano") breadcrumb crust on the scallops gave the dish a textural contrast, and the lemon-butter-tomato sauce was surprisingly light. The baked manicotti tasted distinctly better than it looked, well-cooked pasta and a very competent marinara sauce being let down by a form that was neither completely functional nor attractive. It was, however, tasty.
One classic dish with which San Diego struggles is linguine with clam sauce (linguine con le vongole). One look at the vongole at downtown's Caps Pizza & Bar (1428 1st Ave.) shows why: canned clams. While a lot of places use that product it's a huge hurdle to overcome. Even the Venetian's version—which added more scallops and fresh clams to the mix—was ultimately undone by the can opener. A better bet at Caps is its excellent eggplant parm sub.
The most common problem in San Diego's red sauce Italian restaurants is, ironically, the red sauce. Most are, plainly and simply, technically deficient. At Volare Italian Restaurant (3528 Barnett Ave., Loma Portal), for example, there was still discernible crunch in the onions in the sauce: It needed a longer simmer. At Etna Pizza & Italian Grill (4427 El Cajon Blvd.) the issue was acid-sugar balance; a little of the latter would certainly have helped. It's hard to have good red sauce Italian pasta without good red sauce.
There is, however, one bit of classic old-style Italian-American fare that seems glorious wherever you go in San Diego: the garlic bread. From Etna's barely-griddled version to Caps' toasty style there is nothing that quite says "Italian-American" like the rich, pungent and incredibly comforting aroma of buttery garlic and a slice of toasted baguette as the delivery vehicle.
Maybe they should be called "garlic bread Italian" restaurants.