Among the La Jolla High School graduating class of 1985, many of my fellow alumni have had brilliant careers in the restaurant and wine business.
Most notable among them are the fisherpeople who stopped selling their catch to the big San Diego canneries and launched fresh fish-focused restaurants.
But I think it’s fair to say that none of us would have ever expected a great Italian restaurant to rise in our hometown. And if you added a great natural wine list to that mix, they would have told you to go cash in your marbles.
There has never been anything like that in La Jolla, a sleepy beachfront town known for its preppy look and its insular culture (I’ll just leave it at that). Until now…
Not only is Marisi, the newish Italian concept that’s located right in the heart of downtown La Jolla, one of the most beautiful restaurants you’ll find in southern California. It’s also one of the best Italian menus I’ve tasted over the last 12 months — hands down.
That’s the rigatoni with spicy tomato above. The richly flavored homemade pasta was cooked perfectly al dente and I loved how the kitchen went for bold heat in this dish.
When’s the last time you had a pesto trapanese outside of Sicily?
In Trapani township in the western part of the island, pesto is made with fresh basil and almonds (instead of the classic Ligurian pesto with pine nuts).
The word trottola means spinning top. It’s a shape similar to what we know today as fusilli (or as my daughters would say, curlicue pasta). I loved the way the pesto dripped from the twisty noodles. And the gently pickled cherry tomatoes gave this wine a creative pop that we all swooned over.
My friend Tony Vallone, the great Italian-American restaurateur who took Italian cooking to new heights in Houston, used to say that for Italian cuisine to be truly authentic, it has to be creative.
The above interpretation of carpaccio really blew both Tracie and me away. Italian purists would have scoffed at this dish. The concept is to feature the quality of the thinly sliced beef, they would say, with minimal adornment. But we were practically licking the plate as we fought for who would get the last bite. Here heat was robust but it didn’t eclipse the flavor of the well-marbled beef. Not traditional by any means. But 1,000 percent delicious.
Or should I say radical, to borrow a phrase from my youth.
The most radical thing about Marisi is its natural-focused wine list by Chris Plaia of Bay Area fame.
I can’t imagine that any of my foodie high school friends would disagree: La Jolla is still an unabashed “Cab” and “Chardonnay” town where “oakiness,” unbridled alcohol levels, fruit-driven, acidity-poor wines still shape the viticultural hegemony. “Natural wine” is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you mention dining in La Jolla (which was once famous for the bar where Raymond Chandler drank himself to death, no joke).
Chris has done an extraordinary job in putting together a list that you would be more likely to find in San Francisco or Silverlake.
Tracie and I went for Giovanna Maccario’s Rossese, a longtime favorite of mine (and Giovanna is one of the coolest winemakers I have met, bold in her support for the emarginated). But there were so many other lots we could have picked.
Before 2009 you could have been hard-pressed (excuse the pun) to find a list like this beyond SF or LA. But Chris has broken the glass ceiling in the most unlikely of places.
We were there on a chilly Wednesday night in January (not exactly the “on” season) and the restaurant was packed. It was a great time and it’s great to know that my hometown, once dissed by Tom Wolfe, has grown into a true fine dining destination.
I highly recommend it. Dulcis in fundo, that’s the tiramisu below.