By FRANK SABATINI JR.
To restaurant goers all over San Diego County, the iconic Anthony’s Fish Grotto is synonymous with clam chowder, lightly battered seafood, shrimp scampi, and boatloads of other oceanic delights ranging from fiercely traditional to smartly modern.
It is also one of the few places in the area still serving classic surf-and-turf in the form of top sirloin and Maine lobster tails.
It was in 1946 when the late Catherine “Mama” Ghio opened Anthony’s Seafood Grotto after emigrating from Italy. The restaurant was tiny. It sat on Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway in San Diego — not far from Mama Ghio’s Little Italy residence. She had named it after her father, Anthony, and also in tribute to her favorite Catholic saint, St. Anthony.
At the time it was the only commercial kitchen in San Diego that served seafood only.
“The thing that caught everyone’s fancy back then was Mama Ghio’s fish and chips and her signature tartar sauce,” said grandson Craig Ghio, who today owns the company and operates it with his cousin and chief financial officer, Beverly Mascari.
“She would make the batter in her garage,” he added. “It’s fluffy, light and not bready, which even today is a very confidential recipe.”
Another big draw in the early days was a tomato-based red clam chowder that Mama Ghio modified from a family recipe for fisherman’s stew. And for those who assume avocado salad is an invention belonging to modern California cuisine, the Italian matriarch was already wowing patrons with the construct more than a half-century ago.
Now in the midst of its 75th anniversary, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of Anthony’s only remaining restaurant in La Mesa, the company enjoyed enormous peaks over the years. In its heyday, it operated multiple restaurants throughout San Diego County — from Rancho Bernardo and La Jolla to Chula Vista and Downtown San Diego.
Mama Ghio’s sons, Anthony and Tod, and her son-in-law, Roy Weber, all played active roles in the business at various times.
Anthony’s also ran a fish processing and packing plant in San Diego’s Linda Vista neighborhood for a few decades. It produced prepared seafood items and signature condiments such as cocktail sauce and salad dressings for retailers. Ghio said the family shut down the facility in 2010 because “we wanted to concentrate on our core business.”
However, a small line of Anthony’s products such as Mama Ghio’s original batter and clam chowder can be purchased from a market section inside the La Mesa restaurant.
Anthony’s most visible location thrived for 52 years in a structure perched along San Diego Harbor at the Embarcadero. During some of that time it adjoined the upscale Star of the Sea restaurant, which the company also owned.
To the shock of locals and tourists alike, the Embarcadero spot closed in 2017.
“We were re-negotiating our lease with the Port of San Diego when they decided to go in a different direction with a new tenant, even though we were willing to spend $12 million for renovation,” said Ghio. “Sadly the Port had little respect for tradition and history,” he added.
The locally based Brigantine restaurant company was awarded the lease and took over the address within a completely rebuilt mega venue named Portside Pier.
From a portfolio boasting more than a half-dozen Anthony’s restaurants over the decades, most of them shuttered over the past 15 years.
“I’m one of the last family members running the company, and we wanted to downsize because it was a little too much to handle,” Ghio noted. “We had some wonderful real estate holdings, and their values outstripped the money we made from the restaurants.”
Ghio, however, remains engaged with operations at the La Mesa restaurant, which sits on a small lake and seats 150 people inside and 100 outside. It is replete with lush landscaping, a cabana and bocci ball court.
The sprawling property underwent a major remodeling in the 1990s — and it brought in some design elements that fulfilled Mama Ghio’s longtime wish.
“She always wanted a restaurant that evoked the word ‘grotto,’ so we redid the entry and bar area with faux rock,” said Ghio.
Among the restaurant’s original elements are two precious mosaics that were anchored into the dining room walls when it opened in 1961. Mama Ghio had them made in Italy in 1959. One is of King Neptune riding a sea serpent and the other shows off undersea creatures. Ghio says they weigh thousands of pounds.
Ghio has put great emphasis on the atmosphere, saying it’s a place that is conducive to conversation and relaxation.
“In today’s restaurant world, everything is cookie-cutter and noisy. We’re not here to hype you up, but rather to calm you down,” he noted.
The menu is unwavering. It flaunts all of the aforementioned classics, which also includes fried calamari, swordfish Mediterranean with olive oil, pesto and heirloom tomatoes, and a dessert from Mama Ghio’s recipe box called cake Zabione — a type of pound cake accented with rum-custard sauce and served with spumoni ice cream.
More recently, Ghio added to the menu a salmon Reuben based on a similar sandwich made with grouper that he had eaten in Florida. He tweaked it with blackened salmon to give it better flavor, and says it has become a big hit.
“It’s really hard for us to change the menu, because every time I do, I’ll get a nasty phone call from people saying they’ve been ordering certain dishes for more than 30 years.”
The company’s milestone anniversary celebration concludes with an upcoming grand-prize drawing. There will be two giveaways: a cocktail party with heavy hors d’oeuvres for up to 20 guests in the restaurant’s cabana; and a multi-course dinner with wine for 12 people. Customers have until Dec. 1 to submit their entries in a ballot box inside the restaurant.
As for the future of Anthony’s, Ghio said: “I’d like to continue operating the restaurant for the next 6 to 8 years, and then maybe find a group of employees or someone in the restaurant business to take over — somebody who appreciates our history and loyal customers.”
— 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.