isola pizza bar / little italy – san diego, ca
Isola Pizza Bar is a new joint that’s joined the little community of Little Italy. Chef Massimo Tenino is the owner, the restaurant named after his grandmother. His heart and soul has been put into this place as he told us about how he build and designed the place from the ground up.
These kick ass lights hanging above us was one of the first things I noticed when we entered and sat down in the restaurant. Chef Tenino told us that they were asparagus canning jars that he turned into lights for the restaurant. It felt so much more personal to know he had a hand in all aspects of the restaurant – it really is his baby.
[wood fire oven]
The restaurant also only featuring one cooking device – the wood fire oven. Everything is cooked in that oven, from appetizers and pizzas, and it serves as the heart and cornerstone of the restaurant.
Jake and I were also very impressed with our service and with our waiter, Alex. Alex was so on top of everything and very good at recommending dishes to us. He really sold us a lot of the dishes and was so passionate about the restaurant and it’s food – it was so refreshing to see! Attention to detail and service really makes your visit feel so much more welcoming and enjoyable.
Here’s a smiling Jake starting to enjoy one of our appetizers.
[focaccia with spicy olive oil]
This is the dish you get started off with – some simple focaccia bread with a flavored olive oil. The olive oil is flavored and seeped with chilies – they constantly are making new bottles and storing them away week after week to ensure they have a batch for their patrons. This olive oil had been working it’s magic for about 8 weeks. The spiciness of it kind of snuck up and hit me. I didn’t taste it at first, but after a few moments the rush of heat and flavor came through – surprising but very tasty.
[prosciutto wrapped tuscan melon]
Jake is in love with Tuscan Cantelope. He spotted this on the menu and just had to order it. The prosciutto was thin and draped over the melon instead of wrapped. Taking one bite gives you the sweetness from the perfectly ripe melon with the slight saltiness from the prosciutto. A perfect bite!
[lardo e focaccina calda – cured lardo, rosemary focaccia, and EVOO]
As for me, my eyes lit up upon spying this dish.
“Lardo” sounds like a strange term for a food but you gotta trust me on this one – if you’ve never had it before you ought to get yourself into a place just to try it. The lardo here at Isola is so sweet and tender. It just melts away on your tongue, treating your tastebuds to an explosion of salty sweet flavor. The rosemary focaccia and just a touch of olive oil round out the whole dish making for a delicious appetizer.
[fagioli al fiasco – cannellini beans, fresh herbs, olive oil, garlic, red chile]
When we were talking with Chef Tenino, Jake asked him what his favorite dishes were and if any of the dishes had been made for him by his grandmother. He immediately mentioned the fagioli al fiasco, saying this simple dish was something his grandma Isola had made for him many times as a child.
Jake asked our waiter what he thought of this dish, too, and he highly recommended it. He explained that the cannellini beans are cooked down with a bunch of herbs and seasonings in a pot in the wood fired oven. Then, the beans are recooked a second time in a skiller and are mashed down a little with some olive oil. The result is the dish you see above.
After one bite, Jake and I were both hooked on this dish!
The beans are so creamy and full of flavor – the mingling of garlic and fresh herbs really shines through. The texture reminds me a bit of hummus – just a little chunkier. We happily dipped our bread into the beans and savored every bite. The rosemary and herbs are intense – but it’s just enough. Not too much to be overpowering but making your mouth sing with happiness.
[above shot – pizzas and wines]
Jake and I ordered two different pizzas to share.
[taleggio – with red potatoes, mushrooms, rosemary and added sausage]
The first one we got was the Taleggio. It comes on the pizza dough with thinly sliced red potatoes, taleggio cheese, mushrooms (only on my half) and a sprinkle of herbs. We added the sausage for a little extra kick.
The wood fired pizza had a nice crust to it. I haven’t had a ton of wood fired pizzas before but this one you could still pick up with your hands. The middle was slightly wet, but not enough to hinder picking it up. There’s no tomato sauce either on this one – just the ingredients listed. The crust was fairly evenly cooked with a couple of “hot spots” but nothing was overdone or too charred. The crust had a chewy texture to it.
This one was my favorite of the two – I liked the thinly sliced potatoes and mushrooms on it. I was kinda wishing for more cheese here.
[broccoli raab – broccoli raab, fennel sausage, chile, mozzarella, ricotta salata]
The Broccoli Raab had ricotta and mozzarella on it which made me a happy girl but I missed the mushrooms from the other pizza. Again, the flavors here are good but no tomato sauce to be seen. Jake was disappointed in the no tomato sauce thing – it’s just not something he’s used to when it comes to pizza. The broccoli raab didn’t quite make me want to sing and dance so that’s why I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much. The ricotta though is quite tasty – I wish that was on the other pizza, too!
I bet you could ask them to do that.
Our waiter also brought us this little dish of red chilies. You know, instead of using dried red chili flakes from a shaker bottle?
You just break off an end and then shake the seeds onto your pizza. Nice little kick of heat. I loved this added touch!
[chocolate budino – chocolate pudding, sea salt, caramel, panna]
For dessert, our waiter brought out the Chocolate Budino. He thought this was the very best item on their dessert menu.
When I saw him from far off bringing this over, it looked like it had devil horns on it. Devilish strawberries!
This reminded me very much of the butterscotch budino I had at Flavor del Mar recently – but chocolate flavored! Very rich and velvety smooth, this had that wonderful hint of sea salt that I just love in desserts. This also had the creamy panna on top which you sort of had to dig through to get down to the chocolate layer – but once you get down there your taste buds are rewarded. I loved this!
[pistachio gelato | coffee gelato]
We also asked to try some gelato. Jake got the pistachio and I had asked for a hazelnut one. Our waiter came back to apologize that the hazelnut had kind of frosted over and was ruined, so he brought me a scoop of coffee gelato instead.
The pistachio gelato tasted like you were eating roasted pistachios – the flavor is so intense and rich. I was surprised at how much flavor was really packed into this gelato. Jake really loved it and thought that it was the best gelato he’s ever had.
I wasn’t quite as impressed with the coffee – it was good, of course, I just preferred the chocolate budino. The coffee gelato was reminiscent of a sweet, creamy coffee drink and had a good flavor. Not quite as intense as the pistachio one though.
[sofia loren guards the bathrooms]
Another shot from inside the restaurant – this is where the bathrooms are. There’s no real indication that the bathrooms are here though. I walked right by them to the back of the place trying to find them before I realized this was where they were! The wall sized photo though is definitely cool enough to make up for that.
Jake and I really enjoyed our visit to Isola. He talked about that fagoli dish for days afterwards… a sure sign that he really liked it. While we were not quite as dazzled by the pizzas, we totally loved the appetizers and desserts that we had.
[view of Little Italy looking north on India Street]
The atmosphere of the restaurant is comfortable and cozy and I think it’s a great addition to already burgeoning neighborhood.
Disclaimer: We were invited to dine at the restaurant and all of our food was complimentary. I was not paid for this review and all opinions are my own.
Isola Pizza Bar
1526 India Street
San Diego, CA 92101