Three men would like to apologize if they were excessively Italian and record-scratched your chi at the cozy coffee shop in Ocean Beach. Their Italianing would’ve occurred in the latter months of 2018 at Lazy Hummingbird café. Their volume was not American-soft. Their discussions may have seemed heated, as if one might flip over a table. You can take the man out of Italy, but you cannot take the elaborate hand gestures out of the Italian.
“Everyone would be staring at us, thinking we were fighting,” recalls Niccolo Angius, his accent not merely thick but viscous. “We thought we were being normal, but Italians—we keep our voices a little higher, we move our hands. We struggle in a fun way. Luckily they never kicked us out.”
They spent months at Lazy Hummingbird mapping out the details for their first restaurant, a fresh-pasta oasis called Cesarina, in Point Loma. And now they’ve got scratches on their hands and minor arm injuries. When a contractor failed to show up a few days ago, Angius and his partners—Giuseppe Scognamiglio and Giuseppe Capasso (yes, two Giuseppes)—unfolded the directions, scratched their heads, and built the cabinets themselves. They messed it up, took the cabinets apart, cursed in two languages, rebuilt them—until 2 a.m. Restaurant life is sexy and full of late-night wounds.
Angius, born and raised in Rome, moved to San Diego with his wife three years ago. “It was between San Diego, LA, and New York,” he says. “LA is too big and New York was too loud.
“I didn’t choose a life in restaurants; it chose me. My dad’s partner opened a restaurant when I was five years old. I was there every single night, and started working there when I was 13 or 14. In Italy, it’s all about good food, healthy food, good produce that comes from very close to the restaurant.”
It was between San Diego, LA, and New York. LA is too big and New York was too cold. – Niccolo Angius
Angius named Cesarina after his wife because he’s smart. She was his partner when they started the concept in 2017 at San Diego farmers’ markets. Doing handmade pasta at the markets was a Sisyphean task, he says. But it taught him the stark difference between Italian and American customers.
“In Italy it’s all about the food,” he says. “But there are no white gloves—the restaurants treat customers terribly. Soon as you eat your food you need to pay and be out in 10 minutes. In California, customer service is on another level. If you have a great product but don’t offer an awesome experience, you have very little chance of success here.”
At Cesarina, there will be an open-air pastificio (all-day fresh pasta-making exhibition station). There will be ceilings high enough to harbor loud voices. There will be a garden patio and an 18-foot wine bar topped with white marble. There will be an Italian chef with roots in top Italian and San Diegan kitchens. There will be Italian wines and Italian beers.
Cesarina’s recipe for fresh pasta is simple. Water and flour. No eggs, because eggs make pasta softer. Fresh pasta will never be as al dente as dried pasta, but using only water gets it a little closer at Cesarina. It’ll be chef Patrick Money’s sauces that make the pasta really sing. Money’s nonna was a pasta maker in northern Italy, where he grew up. He works as a cook at Cucina Enoteca and The Smoking Goat, and says he moved to San Diego because the city’s produce is as obscenely rich and abundant as its seafood.
“We closed the restaurant one night and he made the best and simplest pasta pomodoro with basil,” says Angius of the chef-selection process. “The spaghetti was cooked perfectly. We had some Champagne and sealed the deal.”
Cesarina will serve all three meals with dishes like lemon ricotta and raspberry French toast for breakfast, and for dinner crispy octopus caponata, that pomodoro spaghetti, and salmon fillet with orange dressing over vanilla-cauliflower puree.
For Cesarina’s 2,700-square-foot indoor-outdoor space, they tapped a young designer from Bologna, Stefania Sciomachen. She’s responsible for the ostrich feather chandelier, the imported Italian marble and green tiles, an old beautiful door as a dining table, green leather booths and scattered pink chairs, the wooden shelves stocked with preserves.
“We loved this place because of the neighborhood,” says Scognamiglio, who really pushed for Point Loma over a potential Kensington space. “It has a family atmosphere, with people coming in five or six times a week. I’ve been working downtown for three years, and it’s good for business—but, family-wise, you don’t really know anyone.”
Cesarina opens February 11. 4161 Voltaire Street, Point Loma.