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Exclusive First Look: Lala by Busalacchi Restaurant Group

The group behind some of the city's top Italian eateries is set to open its newest locale on Feb. 5
Lala Restaurant, San Diego, Little Italy

Chic and cozy: that’s the name of the game at Little Italy’s brand new Lala.

“We opened up Barbusa almost seven years ago,” says PJ Buslacchi, a managing partner of the Busalacchi restaurant empire which includes Barbusa, Nonna, and Zucchero, will soon welcome Lala to the family. “We realized that its kitchen couldn’t handle another 60 seats, and that’s what we needed [to keep up with demand]. So, Lala was born.”

Lala used to be a pet supply and grooming shop, now a 1,000-square-foot restaurant and cocktail bar designed by Taylor Shaffer, formerly a principal partner at Open Gym, which also designed the forthcoming Wildflour Delicatessen and White Rice.

Busalacchi explains that though it was born from its predecessor, Barbusa, Lala’s focus will be much different. “Barbusa is a more Sicilian-focused restaurant, so when we were thinking of what this could be, we wanted to make sure it was a concept we knew. We don’t want to do anything that we don’t know well.”

Culinarily, focus will be on Italian-style cocktails (think amari and other aperitivi) and small, shareable, almost home-cooked style plates, like a hunk of baked ziti and other pastas. There are bigger plates, too, like a steak that’s sliced in the kitchen.

Design-wise, it’s “vibey, sexy, and intimate.” There’s a brand-new kitchen and a covered patio. Custom light fixtures accent gold-leaf painted Venetian-style plaster; “lots of marble,” Busalacchi says; floor lamps on the patio; hardwood floors; walnut paneling; leather and velvet-everything; sepia, coral, sage, and olive tones throughout; and modern re-interpretations of Renaissance-era art by painter William Etty. Like hanging in your rich friend’s living room.

The cocktail list is of special note. Created by barkeep Antonio Gonzales, who comes to Lala from behind the stick at Barbusa, it’s intended to show San Diegans the versatility and range of Italian spirits in an approachable way.

“Since we’re such a small place, I had to make sure that instead of just having every amari that I love to drink back there to sip on, that I included some of my favorites and also ones that were easily introduced to customers that may not know what they prefer when it comes to sweet versus bitter effects,” Gonzales says.

So, instead of just having a straight amaro section, he says that he created a cocktail list with various amari in them to give their bitterness more complexity. For example, he’s got a drink with bourbon, passionfruit, and Amaro Montenegro, the latter of which has a drying effect and also notes of cucumber, mint, and fennel that balance the sweetness of the former two.

Also of note is its barrel-aged program. Unlike others that are more bourbon-based, Gonzales’ is solera-style, which means he sourced used sherry barrels from Spain. A variety of drinks have already been aged for a year in this style.

All-in-all, it’s intended to be a casual, good time, but with style. “Someone said Lala’s maximalist, and, yeah, sure…” Busalacchi said before trailing off. “But, really, it’s just elegant and cohesive. You’re not going to feel overstimulated. It’s more intimate and homey.” Sounds like just the place to sit back, relax, and dig into a chunk of carbs while clinking glasses.

Lala will open its doors to the public on Monday, February 5, 2024.

By Jackie Bryant

Jackie is San Diego Magazine's content strategist. Prior to that, she was its managing editor. Before her SDM career, she was a long-time freelance journalist covering cannabis, food/restaurants, travel, labor, wine, spirits, arts & culture, design, and other topics. Her work has been selected twice for Best American Travel Writing, and she has won a variety of national and local awards for her writing and reporting.

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