4421 Genesee Ave.
I first heard about Trattoria Firenze on music night. My friend Jeff hosts informal music-listening sessions in his converted garage, and, knowing my foodie tendencies, he was anxious for me to try some of the trattoria's pizza.
It was good. A white pizza with a chewy thin crust brushed with olive oil and garlic and topped with cheese and shaved Parma ham. I was stunned when Jeff told me this place was in Clairemont, run by a guy who used to work at the renowned French Laundry. Is Clairemont finally home to some good non-Asian dining?
Happily, the answer is yes.
Shortly after music night, Jeff organized a Belgian beer brunch and cooking class at the trattoria. Some of the dishes included a glorious chicken-liver mousse, braised endive and the Belgian staple, carbonnade flamande-a slow-cooked stew of Belgian brown ale-marinated beef. Turns out that Trattoria Firenze's chef, Constantinos Laliotitis, has worked in kitchens around the world, including Belgium, Paris, Japan and Northern Italy.
So, what the heck is he doing cooking this stuff in Clairemont?
"My parents told me they were thinking about buying this place," Laliotitis explained. It was only a few months later, after they closed the deal, that they told him he was going to create the restaurant and man the kitchen. Laliotitis left his job at the Four Seasons in Carlsbad and got to work creating his vision.
Trattoria Firenze occupies what used to be kind of a run-down pizza joint, a place that served the standard giant pizza and sub sandwiches to Little League teams and other locals. Laliotitis gutted and transformed the space into a pleasant modern dining room, but he still serves some of the prior restaurant's clientele. That's left him trying to satisfy these regulars' pedestrian palates while also offering a selection of more interesting Italian goodies.
The resulting menu is somewhat schizophrenic, with Americanized pizzas topped with ham and pineapple sitting alongside dishes like gnocchi with Gorgonzola and cherries; penne with artichokes, sausage and olives; and a range of traditional Italian-style pizzas.
We stopped in for a visit the other night. There was a huge party occupying the whole back of the restaurant-a girl's soccer team, with families in tow. The pizzas going out to the table looked great, but we were after the more refined items.
As we perused the menu, our server brought us some crostini to nibble on-something I later found out is standard practice in Italy, so you're not sitting there starving while you wait. These were excellent, topped with that same great chicken-liver mousse I had at the Belgian brunch.
The bread was charred over an open flame, and the combination of the bread and the mousse was incredible. I'd never before experienced this particular blend of flavors, and it really worked well.
That first crostini was so good we had to order the crostini appetizer, along with a Caesar salad, a filet mignon special and a halibut special. I also checked out the wine list, and it's just the kind of selection I like, with an emphasis on food friendliness. I ordered a glass of the soave from Anselmi, one of my favorite Italian white wines for appetizers; it's bright acidity works well with garlic and other strong flavors.
The crostini did not disappoint, although there was so much sitting on top of them they were a bit of a challenge to eat. My favorite of the three consisted of broccoli and garlic atop herbed mascarpone cheese. This had a really interesting mix of flavors and textures, complemented by the charred taste of the bread.
Also good was the Caesar salad. The dressing tasted freshly made, and it had a good balance of tart, garlic and mustard. The warm-from-the-oven croutons on top were a nice touch.
A few minutes after finishing these, our entrées arrived, looking pretty on their plates. The filet was perched atop fried potato planks and topped with Gorgonzola cheese and rosemary. At one end of the plate was a pool of a balsamic-raddichio reduction, and at the other char-grilled asparagus spears and tomatoes.
The halibut was laid out on top of a blend of Brussels sprouts, pancetta (Italian bacon) and potatoes, with a garlicky green sauce decorating the plate. Of the two entrées, the filet was my favorite; it was meltingly tender, and the Gorgonzola and rosemary worked nicely with the charred flavor of the meat.
We wrapped up our meal with a couple of house-made desserts: tiramisu and crème brulee. The tiramisu was a little bit richer than most, not quite as airy, but with an unusual citrus flavor that added a new dimension. Almost as good, the crème brulee came with fresh strawberries atop the crisp, caramelized sugar glaze.
Trattoria Firenze is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. Prices vary quite a bit, with the standard pizzas costing $12 to $14 for a large; traditional Italian pizzas are priced around $10, specials in the low-to-mid $20s.