By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Danilo de Corato learned to cook in his teens from a mother “who lives in the kitchen.” A native of Milan and former apprentice of the Italian Federation of Cooks, he’s exactly the kind of guy you want making your pasta when going out for an Italian meal.
De Corato and his wife, Francesca Brusati (also from Milan), moved here more than a decade ago, after which they ran Caffe Bella Italia in Pacific Beach for a while.
“We sold it and decided to create a place where my husband can do his own recipes,” said Brusati, referring to Cucina Basilico, which they first launched in Serra Mesa before opening a second location in La Mesa. The menus at both are the same, and de Corato credits his mom for many of the recipes.
Their La Mesa restaurant, which serves dinner only, is the larger of the two. The airy space is defined by burnt-orange walls, polished concrete flooring and potted plants. Set in a strip plaza that runs along Interstate 8, there is ample parking.
Meals start off with oven-fresh focaccia balls served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They’re light, yeasty and addicting.
Visiting as a twosome, we proceeded to a plate of pesto-dotted caprese. The tomatoes were exceptionally fresh and the mozzarella was thick and milky.
Another appetizer is “polpette” — meatballs made exactly the way de Corato’s mother constructs them. The surprise ingredient is mortadella, which is blended into an admixture of beef, pork, parsley, nutmeg and milk-soaked bread. Though smallish in size, they packed a good meaty flavor, which trickled lovingly into the pond of bright marinara sauce filling the dish. (Keep a few of the focaccia balls handy for dipping.)
We shared a spinach salad that rose above the norm with dried apricots and perky lemon dressing. The medley also featured sliced almonds, carrots, sunflower seeds and generous shavings of shaved Grana Padano cheese from an imported wheel — always a sign that the pasta it’s grated over will be of equally fine quality.
As patrons complete their first courses, a server presents visual samples of the day’s house-made pastas on a small plate. There are usually four different types, such as rigatoni, gnocchi, fettuccini and casarecce (long twisted tubes ideal for chunky sauces).
We chose fettuccini.
You then pair your pasta to a sauce from a diverse selection that includes marinara, Bolognese, Gorgonzola and white wine with clams.
It was the creamy “norcina” sauce that called to us with its inclusion of lean Italian sausage and sweet caramelized onions, which practically melted into the soft, light pasta ribbons. It’s one of the most memorable well-balanced noodle dishes I’ve slurped down in a while.
My companion’s eggplant Parmesan delivered tidy layers of thin eggplant slices, marinara sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan. It was a simple and decent construction more exclusive to central and southern Italy rather than Milan.
From a short list of side dishes that includes butter-sautéed carrots and wilted spinach with roasted garlic, we opted for pesto gnocchi as well as green beans sautéed in olive oil and herbs. Both were outstanding. The gnocchi were pillowy, and the texture of the beans hung in that coveted balance between firm and soft.
In terms of service and quality, the meal never skipped a beat. No surprise from a restaurant built on passion and experience.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career as a staffer at the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.