25 FORTY BISTRO & BAKEHOUSE
2540 Congress St., Old Town
It took favorable reports from friends to prompt me to visit 25 Forty Bistro & Bakehouse, which opened six months ago on one of Old Town's main drags. What I found was a charming converted cottage with a sleek, black-and-white palette serving well-intentioned, mostly well-prepared food. I've been back several times (though it will be more pleasant once the tourists have gone home).
Chef-owner Mark Pelliccia's family moved to San Diego in the mid '80s, but he spent 15 years training as a chef in Europe, primarily Italy. In 2007, he returned to San Diego, first working in an Italian restaurant in Liberty Station before opening 25 Forty.
The cottage has a spacious front patio, but it's the secluded side patio that's a great spot for a late breakfast or lunch, with dishes that range from an egg-topped veggie hash to hearty sandwiches, including one filled with roast beef, avocado and tomato confit and another with roasted pork and homemade sauerkraut. (Dinner is currently served Thursdays through Saturdays until the restaurant's liquor license is finalized and Pelliccia feels comfortable expanding the menu.) Baked goods are a particular passion for Pelliccia; he spent a year at an Italian pastry school and makes croissants, tarts, cakes and bread daily. His homemade dough serves as a base for pissaladiere, a crisp-bottomed bread spread with a chunky, onion-laden tomato sauce and studded with whole olives. It makes for a nice meal when paired with a cup of soup.
It's not unusual for Italians to have a small pasta course between their appetizer and entrée. At a recent group dinner, 25 Forty was happy to make us half-size plates of pasta, and we were able to sample almost the entire menu. As is customary in Italy, none of the pasta was drenched in sauce.
Of all our selections, the gnocchi's the only item I wouldn't reorder. The dumplings, tossed with a light pesto and topped with a quenelle of fresh ricotta, were a bit soft and gummy.
But Pelliccia's thin-yet-toothsome sheets of homemade pasta, which he turns into fettuccine and ravioli, are worth eating again and again. A special of the night, duck ragu with fettuccine, was a particular hit. The lightbodied sauce, a braise of duck with wine and vegetables, heightened the meat's inherent sweetness and infused the pasta with a rich, deep flavor. Also good was the eggplant parmigiana ravioli— pockets of pasta filled with breaded rounds of eggplant and topped with a bright homemade tomato sauce, made more savory with bacon. It's a nice, lighter version of the classic dish.
There are three protein-based entrées and one or two additional specials that change often. Of the regular choices, the pork with sautéed apples and spinach was especially well-received. Upon first seeing his plate, heaped with three large and thick but very tender slices of meat, my seatmate declared that it was too much food and then proceeded to finish the whole thing.
The desserts highlight Pelliccia's pastry skills. Tender crepes filled with vanilla custard are served tableside with a warm sauce of brown sugar and Grand Marnier and then topped with a frozen sphere of whipped vanilla cream with a crunchy outer layer of meringue. Your waiter pours ruby-red raspberry sauce on top and when you use your spoon to break into it, more sauce pours out of the hollow center.
There's a baked-goods happy hour daily from 3 to 5 p.m., when everything's half-price. Or, if you're one of the last dinner customers, you may go home with a little care package, perhaps a chocolate-hazelnut brownie or a custard-filled almond cake—something sweet to remember them by.