By Wendy Lemlin
There are those who might think that San Diego’s Little Italy didn’t need another Italian restaurant. Sure, the city’s hottest dining neighborhood has seen an influx over the past couple of years of trendy, non-Italian eateries, however, “Italian” restaurants and pizza purveyors still far outnumber any other types of cuisine presented in those heavily-trafficked few blocks. But, anyone who thinks another Italian restaurant would have been superfluous there, obviously hasn’t dined at Civico 1845.
Why do I love Civico 1845? Well, to paraphrase poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, (who has nothing to do with Italian food, but is always good for a pithy quote), let me count the ways.
- Authentic Food Born and raised in Consenza, Italy, brothers Dario and Pietro Gallo grew up around their father’s restaurant supply company, and eventually opened a restaurant together in their hometown. In 2013, the brothers visited San Diego, falling in love with the city as everyone does, and decided to move here. In 2015, they opened Civico 1845, hiring head chef Alfonso Pisacane, also an Italian ex-pat who comes from a generations-long lineage of chefs. Obviously, these guys know their way around a plate of pasta—and any of the other varied menu items served there with loving pride.
- 100% Vegan Menu In addition to the restaurant’s creative and reasonably extensive regular menu, Civico 1845 serves what just might be THE best vegan food in the city. Sure, it’s not that hard to make vegetarian Italian food—just leave out the meat or seafood—but 100% vegan? With no cheese, butter, eggs, dairy products, etc? Everything plant based? And, I repeat, no cheese from animal milk? And have it still taste authentically Italian? Not so easy, my friend. And yet, for the most part, the vegan dishes presented here succeed admirably. Nothing is “missing” in taste or texture. If I hadn’t been told that the cheese in the lasagna, for instance, was made from nut milk, rather than cow’s milk, I wouldn’t have known. This is not Birkenstock hippie food, but well-executed variations of very recognizable favorites. In fact I’d venture that the vegan dishes outshine many of the non-vegan ones (which is not meant to take anything away from those). Kitchen manager and co-owner Pietro Gallo is himself a vegan and his passion for veganism and healthy living became the inspiration behind the plant-based (and often gluten-free) menu, which was developed under the tutelage of renowned Italian vegan chef Luca Zannoni.
- Warm and Friendly Atmosphere You can tell that the owners and staff love what they are doing at Civico 1845, because everyone is so welcoming and seemingly happy with their work. Even when the dining room is bustling with every table full, the servers patiently explain the dishes, especially the vegan menu items in which the ingredients and methods of preparation might not be familiar to diners. The owners and managers often circulate among the tables, chatting to customers and promoting a convivial atmosphere.
- Sustainability Along with the Gallo brothers’ commitment to healthy living goes a commitment to a healthy environment. The menu focuses on locally grown and seasonal ingredients and the bar and dining areas were created using reclaimed, natural materials. Nothing goes to waste at Civico 1845.
So what’s good to eat? For starters, here are just a few of my many faves from the vegan menu. In full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve tried many more of the vegan dishes than the non-, so my favorites lean in that direction. I’m not a pure vegan, but I don’t eat mammals, and when given the option of choosing a vegetarian or vegan dish that is creatively prepared, I’ll generally go for that.
Going with the philosophy of “life’s uncertain, eat dessert first”, let’s start with the Vegan Pistachio Gelato. Yes, vegan gelato—sinfully rich, silky creamy and abounding in the flavor of the imported-from–Sicily Bronte pistachios which are often acknowledged as the best in the world. Made from soy milk, the frozen dessert will give any cream-based cousin a run for its money. Also crave-worthy is the Mousse al Cioccolato, chocolate mousse with salted caramel ginger cookie crumbles. I have no idea how they get the wonderful mousse lightness without using dairy, eggs or gelatin, but it was one of the best chocolate mousses I’ve had.
For appetizers, the Mushroom “Calamari” and the Polpettine di Miglio are total
standouts. The first is a plate of light and crispy fried pieces of breaded oyster mushroom, replacing the squid, served with a garlicky, zingy Arrabiata Sauce to enliven the delicate flavor of the fungi. The second are millet “meatballs”, served over a garden salad and edible flowers with three different dipping sauces. These delicious balls of grain, crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, were a big hit with both the vegans and carnivores at my table. I wouldn’t compare them to “meat”—that would be doing them a disservice, IMHO— but they were very satisfying and I could easily make a meal out of the dish. Also excellent and creative is the Vellutata di Zucca, rich butternut squash puree with fried onion rings and yogurt puree.
In the Primi Piatti section of the menu, the vegan version of Capaccio layers thinly sliced and marinated baby yellow and red beets with 3-seed mayo and focaccia croutons. Gnocchi alla Crudaiola presents the perfect potato dumplings in a wild rocket (arugula) pesto that gives a pleasant peppery greenness to the flavor profile. Proteine Italiane was another crowd-pleaser at my table. A warm protein salad of quinoa and lentils tasted like spring, with fresh strawberries and blueberries, edible flowers, micro greens and a balsamic reduction. Both the Lasagna Romagnola and Melanana alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmesan) were faithful
alternatives to their non-vegan counterparts. The cashew nut milk cheeses were slightly lighter than dairy cheeses, but no less flavorful. The lasagna was layered with a seitan (soy-based meat substitute) ragout and béchamel sauce, and the eggplant had a fine balance of tomato and cheese flavors.
Moving on to the non-vegan menu, an excellent start to the meal is a board of selections from the Prosciutto and Formaggio bars. Mix and match your favorite paper thin slices of meats and samples of Italian cheeses, served with fig marmalade and caramelized
Linguine Alla Pescatora, loaded with mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari, conjured up the romance of a seaside dinner on the Amalfi Coast.. The Cioppino was a special of the day, less soupy than the San Francisco version with which most people are familiar. The bowl was piled high with plump prawns, squid, mussels, clams, fish and scallops, and the broth was redolent with saffron.
Happy endings abound in the Profiteroles, cream-filled pate-choux pastry balls liberally blanketed in a rich chocolate sauce, classic Tiramisu, and, my favorite, the Delizia, a citrusy sweet limoncello custard cake.
Civico 1845 is located at 1845 India St. and is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner.