If you wander down India Street in San Diego’s Little Italy section, you’re likely to notice a bustling neighborhood addition: Civico 1845 restaurant. This quaint, rustic-chic eatery is a breath of fresh air relative to the plethora of Italian dining options surrounding it. What truly sets this eatery apart is its vehemently authentic and hand-crafted approach to Southern Italian cuisine. “Like Mama used to make, with modern flair,” is the guiding philosophy restaurant owners (and brothers) Dario and Pietro Gallo literally bring to the table. Civico 1845 (pronounced CHEE-vee-ko) serves up quintessential regional classics with a contemporary sensibility dedicated to the use of farm fresh seasonal and sustainable ingredients along with specialty victuals native to (or principally used throughout) Southern Italy. As notable, the restaurant’s commitment to scratch-cooked staples like pastas, breads and desserts will make you feel like you’re eating one of “Mama’s” home cooked meals.
The restaurant’s Southern Italian orientation comes from Dario and Pietro themselves, who were born and raised in Cosenza, Italy—a city located in the southern region of Calabria. I recently visited Civico 1845 and had the pleasure of interviewing Dario who, in addition to being co-owner, is also the general manager. He underscored the restaurant’s unfussy au naturale approach, noting that it “avoids using fats and artificial elements to ‘enhance’ flavors. In every dish here at Civico 1845, you can taste the natural flavors of each ingredient we use.” In addition to cooking with locally grown and seasonal ingredients, the restaurant also only utilizes wild caught seafood and grass-fed meats. Pietro, who additionally serves as the restaurant’s kitchen manager, also commented on the origin of the eatery’s old-fashioned approach and adherence to proper technique, stating “Our mother used to cook tomatoes for three hours to get the taste just right. That is the standard we desire to live up to.”
While the restaurant is certainly steeped in tradition, certain aspects of the menu take a more modern turn like the availability of gluten-free pasta substitutions as well as a completely vegan menu dedicated to maintaining exacting vegan standards—not something normally seen in Italian cuisine. This ancillary menu option stems, in part, from co-owner Pietro’s own veganism. He notes, “Most people read ‘marinara sauce’ and think tomatoes, which are vegan friendly. What they don’t realize is that the sauce is often made with butter, which is not vegan at all. We’re working with a number of vendors to make sure that our vegan menu is absolutely, 100 percent vegan.”
All combined, the result for Civico 1845 is a focus on spot-on Southern Italian fare that is not only made from scratch, but also boasts top-quality natural, fresh and seasonal ingredients across-the-board.
When looking for the right chef to execute their vision, the brothers struck culinary gold. Dario elaborated, “It was important for us to find an experienced, Southern Italian chef. We are lucky to have Alfonso Pisacane as our head chef. His family has owned and operated Le Tre Sorelle, a traditional Italian restaurant in Positano, Italy, for over three generations. He also spent the last 10 years working as a chef in North County San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles.”
Dario continued, commenting on some of Chef Pisacane’s creations that have become Civico 1845’s signature dishes. “Our Scialatielli Civico is one of our most popular dishes with handmade Calabrian chili pasta, Caledonian prawns, cherry tomatoes and wild rocket (Arugula). The Casareccie alla Norcina is also a signature dish, one that I think really represents who we are as a restaurant–both the pasta and the fennel sausage are homemade. We also top the dish with ricotta dumplings, black truffles and Parmigiano-Reggiano.” When asked about his own favorites on the menu, Dario indicated his go-to appetizer is the mixed board of Prosciutto and Formaggi—guest’s choice of varied meat and cheese options like mortadella, capicollo, gorgonzola dolce and sottocenere to name just a few of the twelve available options that are all served with a caramelized walnuts and fig marmalade.
Having dined at Civico 1845 for dinner, I have a few of my own favorites. Paramount among these from the various starter selections I sampled is the Burrata Heirloom Caprese—a velvety mozzarella and cream spread served with heirloom tomatoes, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, wild arugula and black lava salt all drizzled with a vibrant balsamic vinaigrette. The Calamari Fritti was also a winner due to its delicate, flaky and well-seasoned batter, and the fact that it was lightly fried just to crisp up the exterior rather than overcook or outright conceal the flavor of the seafood within. Traditional Arrabiata and garlicky aioli sauce sides were welcome but not mandatory enhancements.
Entrée-wise, my personal pasta penchant is the Pappardelle Brasato. While the savory slow-braised, cabernet-flavored short rib ragù rife with aromatic herbs is an utter delight unto itself, the large flat ribbons of Pappardelle pasta—cooked to al dente perfection—stole the show. Obligatory shavings of hard Parmigiano-Reggiano complete this righteous recipe.
Seafood-wise, I’m particularly partial to the Scallops with Meyer lemon—a conceptually simple dish where the freshness and caliber of the ingredients and culinary execution shine. Well-seasoned and seared, and cooked to a medium rare, the oceanic essence of the scallops is aptly accented, not hindered. The pairing of painstakingly caramelized and doughy black garlic gnocchi with this tender, mild protein is apropos.
For dessert, you just can’t go wrong with Civico 1845’s Cannoli—not just one but two large cheese-filled pastries with crunchy pistachio tips served atop an impossibly rich dark chocolate sauce.
Also on the traditional treat front, this restaurant’s rendition of espresso and mascarpone cheese-laden Tiramisu will duly satisfy your Italian sweet tooth. For his part, Dario digs the Zeppole—filled Neapolitan doughnuts with vanilla cream and Italian Amarena cherry.
Food aside, any discussion of Civico 1845 would be incomplete without a mention of both its location and the décor. When asked why Little Italy is the ideal spot for the restaurant (besides the obvious), Dario answered, “After getting to know the neighborhood, we thought that it could really use a more modern Italian concept and realized that it would be the best place to showcase our authenticity. Tastes are changing–more people have traveled to Italy and can appreciate and recognize an authentic Italian restaurant.” It’s certainly not easy for an Italian eatery to carve out a niche among a veritable sea of other Italian restaurants, but this Civico 1845 has done quite successfully. My own Wednesday night visit was proof positive. Even at nine o’clock in the evening when most restaurants would be starting to clear out, there was nary an open table available in the lively and laughter-filled dining room.
Speaking of the dining room, the restaurant has a light, bright and open concept floor plan that creates a relaxed and communal ambience. This is further enhanced with a casual but thoughtful interior design rife with reclaimed materials and natural, living elements—all a perfect complement to the eatery’s culinary inclinations.
“I really enjoy the overall vibe of our restaurant,” Dario said. “We have a young, fun staff who are great at getting to know our guests and neighbors…everyone feels like family.” And that’s apparently what it’s all about for the brothers. “We want guests to feel like they are dining in our home in Italy, experiencing our family’s traditions and home cooking.”
And that homespun hospitality is certainly what I experienced throughout my own visit: staffers making you feel more than welcome as you break bread with others. That warmth, coupled with the intensely aromatic, flavorful and textural revitalization of Southern Italian classics, will undoubtedly beckon you back for more.
***Some or all of the accommodations(s), experience(s), item(s) and/or service(s) detailed above were provided at no cost to accommodate this review, but all opinions expressed are entirely those of Merilee Kern and have not been influenced in any way.***