By Frank Sabatini Jr.
October is National Vegetarian Month; a time when new, meatless dishes begin appearing at consumer-savvy restaurants in larger numbers, though without any guarantees those meals will stick around beyond the observance.
At Civico 1845, however, a separate menu card of vegan specialties is available year-round — not necessarily uncommon in some places — but definitely a rarity in Italian establishments that invariably incorporate animal proteins in to their bill of fare.
Located in the pulse of Little Italy, the restaurant was launched in June by pescatarian-turned-vegan, Pietro Gallo, and his meat-eating brother, Dario Gallo. Both are from Italy’s Calabria region, where they ran a restaurant before moving here. Their business partner, Flavio Piromallo, came from Naples. He’s also a carnivore.
Visiting with a vegetarian who doesn’t mind the absence of dairy in meals, as in the case of Civico’s seitan (wheat gluten) lasagna layered with cashew-milk mozzarella, or the no-milk chocolate gelato that Pietro touts as “so good, it’ll make you cry,” my utensils wandered often to my friend’s side of the table.
An order of “calamari” marked our introduction to Pietro’s vegan specialties, as well as the restaurant’s superb red sauce made from slow-cooked San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy.
The appetizer featured curly oyster mushrooms dusted in corn flour and fried lightly in vegetable oil. They struck nearly the exact texture as calamari while picking up a lovely zing from fresh lemon and the dipping sauce.
In another starter, a non-vegan choice, Civico’s head chef and Italian transplant Alfonso Pisacane presses eggplant overnight in salt and then bakes it in the oven without flour, breading or egg wash. He meshes the slices with basil and smoked buffalo mozzarella, and plates it in a puddle of the bright tomato sauce. The result is featherweight, smoky eggplant Parmesan that practically dissolves in your mouth.
The imported, Italian blue fin tuna that comes on the Calabrese con Tonno salad is the best I’ve ever had in terms of the kind packed in cans. I ordered it on the side to allow my friend safe access to the hearts of romaine, tomatoes, red onions and black olives, all blanketed by thin sheets of chili-infused Pecorino cheese.
Given its brownish color, I expected the tuna to taste fishy. But that was hardly the case as albacore came to mind, although far juicer due in part to a drenching of fruity olive oil it receives. No salt or pepper required.
A majority of the products used at Civico are imported — the cheeses, oils, tomatoes, pastas, and cured meats used in salumi boards. What you get is a more authentic taste of Italy opposed to other Italian restaurants that can’t fully replicate the dishes of their homeland when using American-sourced ingredients, no matter how precisely they execute their recipes.
For the ricotta dumplings strewn with house-made fennel sausage, tableside shavings of imported black truffles gave the entrée a magical, rustic quality, aided also by certified Parmigiano Reggiano that faded into the crumbled sausage and bullet-shaped dumplings upon contact. The dish was heavier than expected, thus resulting in leftovers for dinner the following night.
My friend’s vegan lasagna was easier to polish off. The seitan filling looked like minced meat, and began tasting like it after we showered the top with the Parmesan, which provided the touch of saturated fat I felt it needed.
Other vegan choices include penne pasta with pink vodka sauce; potato gnocchi in basil pesto; and half-moon pasta stuffed with potatoes, mushroom and artichokes.
On the flip side of the dietary coin, the menu offers everything from seafood linguini and pasta Bolognese to Limoncello chicken and center-cut filet mignon with Amarena cherry sauce.
Civico’s warm and embracing interior was conceived by local designer Agostino Sannino, who tapped into Italy’s Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s to achieve a retro feel with simple, everyday materials and objects.
The style is most evident from an illuminated wall bedecked with wooden oven paddles, old milk cans, rolling pins and other homey bric-a-brac. We’ve seen it before, but this is designed with better gallery-like flair.
As for the vegan chocolate gelato that concluded our meal, we didn’t cry. But we were awed by its deep cocoa flavor, and more so, by its creaminess, which matched the delicious dairy-laden tiramisu we also devoured. The difference is that the latter requires a longer walk throughout the neighborhood to burn off.
—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.