By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Complimentary house-made potato chips dusted in Parmesan cheese are the first clue the Sicilian-inspired meals you’re about to eat at Barbusa are not of the old-school ilk. Yet after your first chomp into the crispy spuds, traditional table bread served with olive oil becomes an afterthought.
Barbusa is owned and operated by the legendary Busalacchi family — patriarch Joe, his two sons, Joey and PJ, and nephew Nino Zizzo, who serves as head chef.
This is papa Joe’s umpteenth restaurant since he first opened the acclaimed Busalacchi’s Restaurant in Hillcrest some 33 years ago. That had its run along with several other kitchens over time, although Barbusa and nearby Nonna, with its adjoining Zucchero café, have risen as chic destinations for Italian indulgences.
Barbusa’s food particularly stands out because of its modern, global spins, and in a few cases, its fine use of chili peppers. It’s the place to come if you’re bored with everyday pasta dishes or if you want to delve into grilled meats served with Italian touches, such as fabulous lamb lollipops dripping in Gorgonzola sauce.
Pop art hanging from a long wall sets a whimsical tone while a large bar on the other side of the room becomes an open invitation to make Barbusa your neighborhood watering hole. In fact, the name “Barbusa” cleverly combines the word “bar” with the first four letters of the family’s surname.
The varied drink offerings extend to signature cocktails, like the bourbon-based “Busa julip” and rye whiskey-centric “Siciliano.” There’s also local craft beers and numerous wines, including a memorably smooth Mongrana super Tuscan that calls for a little red meat on your table.
Arancini is a Sicilian favorite involving crispy rice balls stuffed usually with cheese and meat ragu. Zizzo adheres largely to the classic recipe, filling them with ultra-tender beef short rib as well as mushrooms, tomatoes and Parmesan. They’re soon coming off the appetizer menu, but will be offered occasionally as a special. Take full advantage if you see them.
Fortunately, the aforementioned lamb lollipops are staying put in all their tender glory and steak-like flavor. Served three to an order, they rank on the upper end of the price spectrum ($19.85) as a luxurious appetizer. Although if you have money to burn, a double order as a main entree will undoubtedly keep your palate engaged to the very last bite.
House-made “spaghettini” tossed in red sauce, dungeness crab and serrano chilies was exquisitely sweet and spicy at the same time. The thin string noodles, which are a tad thicker than angel hair pasta, offered a semi-firm chew that corresponded well to the finely shredded crab meat strewn generously throughout the dish. This is seafood pasta at its best, provided you can withstand some heat.
My companion’s choice was funghi e tartufo, which involves tube-shaped pasta tossed in coveted oyster mushrooms and cloaked in a whipped sauce of cream, sheep cheese and black truffle oil. Chalk it up to one of those pasta creations that makes you turn a blind eye to the caloric consequences of eating the whole portion in one sitting.
Other pasta choices include capelacci (square-shaped pillows) stuffed with pistachio pesto and sun-dried tomatoes; orecchiete (little ears) topped with olives and duck ragu; and bone marrow cavatelli (small loosely formed shells) mixed with Sicilian sausage and cream.
From a choice of five pizzas, which includes a vegan pie using Beyond Meat sausage and cheese, we opted for the “dolci e picante” accented with soppressata — the peppy cousin to American salami.
Covered judiciously with mozzarella and Granna Padano cheeses, it was the stunning interplay of the proteins, the kicky Calabrian chili peppers, and drizzles of lavender honey that made this pizza unlike any I’ve previously encountered. Even though I’d vouch for a little less honey, it’s a brilliant construct that pushes the envelope, yet without sending the combined flavors into Kookyville.
As for the crust, it was soft, springy, and easy on the choppers, and with a discernible yeast flavor that commonly goes missing in San Diego pizzas.
Other menu items include seafood from the crudo bar; sirloin meatballs; duck ragu polenta; whole fish of the day; tomahawk pork; and a 20-ounce bone-in rib-eye with “Sicilian seasonings.”
Barbusa is one of the few restaurants in town actually offering a tangible, money-saving deal on Oct. 17 for National Pasta Day. The one-day special allows guests to eat all the pasta they can consume for $35 from a choice of three preparations — with seafood, with meat sauce, or in the form of veggie ravioli. The cost includes salad and dessert.
1917 India St. (Little Italy)
Prices: “For the table”
appetizers, $14.85 to $23.87;
crudo bar items, $13.76 to $19.88;
salads, $12.22 to $12.78;
pizzas, $14.31 to $17.25;
pasta dishes, $16.42 to $24.92; main entrees, $24.94 to $48.57
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.