San Diego diners will no doubt be familiar with the the pioneers of Italian cuisine in Little Italy. Joe Busalacchi, the family’s patriarch’s keen instincts to open his first restaurant, Busalacchi’s on Fifth Avenue in 1986 paved the way for many more under his belt in the last three decades.
The family restaurants have now been handed down from Joe to his two sons, Joey and PJ, who are overseeing the family’s new concepts – Barbusa, which took over the Busalacchis’ former Po Pazzo space, and Nonna + Zucchero, now occupying the old Trattoria Fantastica and Café Zucchero location.
Executive Chef Nino Zizzo, who oversees the menu across the board is Joe’s nephew. It is definitely all in the family here, but even those not blood-related express a fierce loyalty to the Busalacchis. Take our server Mario for instance, a wealth of knowledge and information having been with the Busalacchi family for decades. Mario aptly guides us through the menu, with suggestions and stories that warmed our hearts – and don’t get me started on what an amazing operatic singing voice this man has!
A round of seasoned bread is brought to the table, compliments of the house. Should you want more, you can order some for $4. It is rather addicting and I highly suggest refraining from indulging too much as you’ll want to leave room for your meal.
We begin with Sicilian Meatballs ($14.46) an offering of ground sirloin meatballs in a hearty tomato sauce dotted with currants, pine nuts, pecorino and caprino cheeses, and sugo (tomato sauce). The little meatballs are essentially bite-sized, although I cut mine in half before eating. They are texturally perfect – light and airy – with the currants adding a hint of sweetness on the palate.
Mario’s recommendation of Frittura ($14.35) is a perfect appetizer to share. The shrimp are served de-shelled, although the head remains intact – a move I applaud, seeing how much I enjoy coaxing the tomalley out of them. While the calamari is tender, the coating could be a tad crispier. The smelt I’m accustomed to have all been much larger, but these little ones are flavorful and a solid addition to this seafood medley. A spritz of the seared lemon brightens and adds a refreshing burst of tartness. There is also grain mustard aioli for those who enjoy the creaminess of this accompaniment.
Tempura squash blossoms is a staple in most Italian restaurants, and while the Fiori di Zucca ($14.87) is a heavier starter, and will do well as a shared item for the table, it is equally perfect for vegetarian diners who might be looking for meatless options. The delicate flowers are stuffed with four cheeses — quattro formaggi – and served on a layer of apricot chile jam.
Moving on to pastas, we make sure we choose hand-made pastas created in-house. Fazzoletti ($16.31) or better known as handkerchief pasta, are squares of al dente pasta enveloped in a beautifully green pistachio pesto. It is another vegetarian delight, albeit just a touch too much olive oil, but is comfort food at its best.
My absolute favorite plate is Aragosta ($24.67) an impeccable dish of squid ink fettucine, chunks of tender lobster, fragrant fennel, with a hint of truffle, in a shallot white wine sauce. I am usually not a fan of truffle when it is paired with ingredients other than simply risotto, or eggs. Most restaurants tend to be heavy handed when using truffles, however, the subtlety here is exquisite. Each component’s flavor is allowed to rise to the fore without the truffle ever overwhelming, or masking them.
The task of choosing a pizza is a hard one, with many catching my eye. Luckily, Mario made it easy for us. Palermitana ($15.43) is a pie topped with sausage, capers, olives, crushed tomatoes, Calabrian chiles, broccolini, and mozzarella with a signature sauce that has been utilized in many recipes throughout the family’s restaurants. The piquancy bursts in my mouth upon first bite, and its savory and spicy elements leave me wanting more.
If you’re looking to round off your meal with something sweet, look no further than the deconstructed cannoli. I find this preparation genius because it keeps the shell crispy, and I can decide how much ricotta filling I’d like with it. Neither the shell nor the cream is overly sweet, and provides a welcoming end to a solid meal. I ended by popping the Luxardo cherries in my mouth as a palate cleanser.
If you’re in San Diego and looking for a solid meal, Barbusa is just the place to satiate that craving. I can’t wait to come back again!
1917 India St
San Diego, CA 92101