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Review: Lala in Little Italy

In a dark corner of Little Italy, sexy is quietly thriving behind a velvet rope
SDM - Lala - Spring 2024
Photo Credit: James Tran

In Little Italy, the city’s primo restaurants are packed tighter and more intimately than Pringles in that proprietary joy silo. In the crowded scene, restaurants must peacock for survival. It is a street of photo finishes, each Italian trattoria or ersatz brunch cabaret trying to stretch its neck a tad further than its neighbor. Competition’s fierce, so channel your Streisand and be the inescapable show, the hitheriest come-hither.

That’s what makes Lala’s setup so strange or appealing or both. You hear the buzz about this pretty new thing and set out to find it. You pass the al fresco dining Guernica that is Piazza della Famiglia. Pass the stately brass-and-walnut, building-as-Ayn Rand-book cover, Born and Raised. You nearly get pulled into the influencer-swan dining orgy of Barbusa. And then you run smack-dab into the rarest of ugly-beautiful gems, a parking lot on India Street that somehow hasn’t yet been turned into a negroni farm.

Interior of Italian restaurant Lala in Little Italy, San Diego featuring a wall of stiletto heels
Photo Credit: James Tran
Get pumped.

You nearly stop, feeling catfished by your GPS. But in the way-back of this lot, you spot a woman standing in the dark portal of a tiny structure. She is wearing business-martini attire, holding a clipboard. There is a velvet rope. This is Lala, which appears to be a speakeasy for ACE Parking.

First, the power of the clipboard must be acknowledged, a small but essential detail. No matter how ornate or neon-bedazzled, a hostess stand doesn’t convey the gatekeeper lure of a good old-fashioned clippy. The clipboard suggests the night’s list of invited people has been made, the list is small enough to fit on a single sheet, and this woman controls it and the fate of all who approach.

Interior of Italian restaurant Lala in Little Italy, San Diego featuring a colorful bar
Photo Credit: James Tran
The amaro-based bar is the focus of Lala, with tassels and brass and various patterns quarreling nicely.

As she takes your name and scans for its presence, you will feel that same nervous pre-shame from your days of trying to get into the nightclub of the moment, where a serious person in a fitted suit performed once-overs of every person in line, making snap judgments of your social merit and value to humanity. You wonder if your jeans are casting the right cachet to make it into the club, or if you should have pleathered.

Plus, that velvet rope. At 5pm when we arrive, it seems a tad ridiculous, a cheeky throwback to the highly selective era of “bespoke” debauch. But then you consider Lala was built as an ornate spillover space for the always-bustling Barbusa (both are from the next-gen of San Diego’s first family of Italian, the Busalacchis). And you get a peek inside Lala, and realize this place is an architectural hiccup, barely enough space to park a couple Rivians. So there will be a line at Lala, and the Busalacchis are not the kind of people to deprive their line-people that Mann’s-Chinese-Theater magic of a velvet rope.

Chargrilled oysters with Parm, pecorino, and Sriracha caviar from Italian restaurant Lala in Little Italy, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran
One of Lala’s best bites—chargrilled oysters with Parm, pecorino, and Sriracha caviar

The Busalacchis brought unselfconscious and unrepentant sexy back to Little Italy. Their social media is a sultry parade of pasta, Aperol, and pheromones. Their clientele is not short on eyelashes or watches. Everything they do is glammed and sensualized. And though my heart is made of black t-shirts, Chuck Taylors, and wardrobe apathy… though I usually eye a dolled-up social scene as espresso-martini cosplay that lacks the casualness of a life lived in the real… I admit to being seduced by it.

Because after the last few years I’m running overstock on verité, and craving escapes that Apple or Meta have no say in. Also because in chronically casual San Diego, where our fashion shrugs can vacuum the flirtatiousness from any space, a roomful of urban pageantry feels like a true night out.

Interior of Italian restaurant Lala featuring artwork depicting Les Girls strip club sign next to barn
Photo Credit: James Tran
Comfy oil paintings are given uniquely San Diego iconography.

To create the cozy magic of Lala, the outside world has been smartly shut out (it is, after all, a parking lot). It is secrets-dark. A small lounge to the left is adorned with plant life and wicker chairs. On the right, an ornate bar with stool and bench seating below a curved wall-to-ceiling situation. The drinks are all libido- and scandal-named (Stiletto, Mistress, Sidepiece, Forbidden Fruit, etc.). There is marble and tassels and more velvet and Venetian plaster and Renaissance nudes.

On one wall, an art installation of stilettos, all of which seem to have lost their counterparts. They’ve replaced the standard kitchen-door window with stained glass, so God is here somewhere. In the restroom, there are various countryside oil paintings that folk music–loving parents from the 1970s adored; except, look closer, and you’ll see the sign for iconic San Diego strip club Les Girls near a bucolic barn. In another, a peaceful snowy river is populated by a bikini model in a party innertube.

Old Fashioned cocktail from Italian restaurant Lala in Little Italy, San Diego presented in a hippo decoration filled with smoke
Photo Credit: James Tran
Snoop Dogg’s hippo comes bearing ye old fashioned.

Lala’s food was designed to be Italian snacks-plus. A spicy Caesar salad with Calabrian chiles plays to San Diego’s desire for capsaicin on everything, and it’s good. Instead of a seafood tower, they have an antipasto tower with prosciutto, salamini, mortadella, cheeses, marinated artichokes, olives, eggplant Parmigiano. A high-rise of gourmet Italian deli snacks.

Their bacon-and-date skewers are something straight out of the 1980s playbook, the leg warmers of appetizers. But they’re almost impossible to dislike in a gorgonzola sauce whose funk keeps the dates’ sweetness from over-acting. The best bite we have are the chargrilled oysters—butter, garlic, breadcrumbs, Parmigiano, pecorino, and Sriracha caviar.

Espresso Martini from Italian restaurant Lala in Little Italy, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran

At Busalacchi restaurants, espresso martinis are realm coin.

Start every night here with the oat milk espresso martini, which has become the official hydration of the Busalacchi world (so popular they launched their own bottled version of it, called Busa). The bar is the major focus at Lala. A heavy but not overwhelming array of amaros add bitter charms to drinks, rather than being the entire idea. The delicious Sidepiece has no Italian at all (reposado tequila, lime, grapefruit, ginger root, mint).

They also barrel-age a couple of cocktails: a house-made negroni tweaked with peach bitters, and an Italian old fashioned that swaps the traditional bourbon for red wine from the mother country (Montepulciano). The drinks shine, but it’s the food here that puts that velvet rope to work.

The “loaded” potato gnocchi is a swooner. Chef Nino Zizzo (also a Busalacchi) could make killer fresh pasta while operating a motor vehicle or binge-watching Montalbano, and gnocchi is always a good test. Should always be like potato clouds, not potato density, and his are puffy white cumulus. It’s a riff on the baked potato, and his cream sauce shames traditional sour cream into hiding.

However, if you’re gonna call it “loaded” (a fun idea), I want to see a very American amount of surplus. A rock quarry of crispy-tender pancetta, a lawn-clippings pile of chives, cheddar cheese just wildly loitering on the plate. And ours is mostly just the cream sauce. Tastes just about perfect, misses the creative brief.

Exterior of Italian restaurant Lala in Little Italy, San Diego featuring a painting with the words Lala over top
Photo Credit: James Tran
Draw me like one of your Italian girls.

We try the cioppino, and it’s a bit of a miss, the broth so deeply stewed that it overwhelms the dainty charms of the seafood. So, sure, Lala joins the long line of us failing to swish every shot we take. But they make up for it with enough hits, a killer bar, and a parking lot speakeasy that, in the loud-voices party that is Little Italy, chose to be the one who just did something quietly interesting off in the corner until we all couldn’t help but gather ’round.

The Perfect Order from Lala

Chargrilled Oysters | Loaded Gnocchi | Espresso Martini

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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