By Frank Sabatini Jr.
While a steady stream of people followed their noses into Napizza in Little Italy, the eatery’s largest location in Hillcrest had gone dark just days prior.
In comparison to Napizza’s additional outposts in 4S Commons Town Center and Encinitas, “Hillcrest wasn’t making much money,” said co-owner Christopher Antinucci, a Roman transplant who exposes us to crispy-bottom pizzas distinguished by low-glutinous dough that rises for 72 hours before it’s stretched onto cookie sheets.
More water goes into the recipe than usual and the dough is never tossed or aggressively kneaded. The result is something that resembles focaccia.
“This is exactly how everyone makes the dough back home,” he emphasized when I first met him shortly after Napizza expanded into Hillcrest nearly three years ago.
Antinucci isn’t fazed by the location’s failure. Sales are thriving at the other locations, which will come to include a new shop in the revamped section of University Towne Center by the end of the year. As for his coveted, now-empty space in The HUB Hillcrest Market, he recently partnered with a “high-end chef” from Rome and plans on turning it into a sit-down Italian restaurant in March.
Back in Little Italy, Napizza’s sheet pies are beautifully displayed with various toppings that include locally grown veggies, truffle pate, meaty Bolognese, tender potatoes and more. With their chubby, raised crusts, they’re cut into sizable squares and appear painfully heavy. But they’re really quite airy. Eat one slice and you won’t thick twice about going further.
My favorite is the “spice me up,” which puts sweet sausage and roasted red peppers in titillating contrast to fresh jalapenos. As with classic Roman pizza involving tomato sauce and mozzarella, as this creation does, both ingredients are used sparingly.
Porcini mushrooms, truffle pate, parsley and a little mozzarella strike an earthy flair in the top-selling “truffle porcini” pizza. Keep in mind that it’s perhaps the driest in the lineup, with no sauce of any kind. Although a few drizzles of olive oil from your kitchen cupboard is all you need if toting it home.
Conversely, the wettest pie in the bunch is the “la lasagna,” where Bolognese and béchamel sauces join forces with judicious plops of mozzarella and grated Parmesan. Think lasagna without the pasta bloat.
On this recent visit, I tried the Baja-style panini. Antinucci has lived here long enough to know that you can’t go wrong combining chicken, jalapenos, bell peppers and avocado between toasty pressed bread. A layer of mozzarella gave the sandwich a courteous Italian essence, although I could have done without the generous smear of mayo inside.
In a nod to herbivores — and the late Tijuana-based Italian restaurateur, Caesar Cardini — the salad menu includes one called “I can’t believe it’s vegan! Caesar salad.”
Only because “nutritional yeast” is used to replace standard Parmesan cheese, I did believe it was vegan. Otherwise, I found the nut-based dressing delightfully creamy and rather lemon-y.
The salads are made to order in eyeshot of the cash register from a station showing off fresh produce. They’re a big hit here, as they were in Hillcrest. There are about 10 medleys to choose from — some vegan/vegetarian and others spotlighting ahi tuna, hormone-free chicken or grilled Angus.
Yet if you’re looking for a week’s worth of fiber and amino acids, the “superfood me” salad yields a jungle of leafy greens and nutty grains amid cool slices of green apples and house-made basil-lemon dressing.
With numerous pizza and salad possibilities in the offing, Napizza’s dessert menu is limited to Nutella pizza, delicate cannoli made in-house, and tiramisu served in a little glass jar and sporting a creamy sweet-sour flavor. It’s a uniquely odd version of the ubiquitous dessert, which an employee told us is outsourced from a local vendor.
Note: The menu is the same at all locations and features combos starting at $11 that allow you choose two food items plus a soda, draft beer or house wine.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.