By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The name Filippi’s Pizza Grotto lands in the books of San Diego’s oldest restaurants. And if you’re a fan of classic Italian-American style food, the aromas and flavors that await inside will likely remain etched in your mind.
To my surprise, the family-owned business has many more locations than I realized beyond its ground-zero operation in Little Italy and this Grantville spot. In what started out as a grocer in 1950 at 1747 India St., eventually turned into a bustling restaurant followed by 13 others spread mainly throughout San Diego County. There are also statewide outposts in Temecula, Napa and Norco.
Founded by Italian immigrant Vincent DePhilippis and his French wife, Madeleine Manfredi, all locations are owned by relatives of the late couple.
“It’s in our bylaws that the individually owned locations must stay within the family,” explained Lucas Trily, the great-grandson of DePhilippis. He co-owns the Grantville and Kearny Mesa locations with his cousin, Joey Hobby.
The other outposts, Trily added, are operated by either bloodline relatives or those who have married into the family.
As a result, the menus throughout the chain are pretty much the same. Nearly 90% of the food is house-made. And the pizzas carry two signature features: Loads of grade A whole-milk mozzarella cheese (a pound of it per large pizza), and toppings that are always tucked beneath the sinful, cheesy mantle. Be advised that what constitutes as a regular layer of cheese at other pizzerias easily equates to double cheese at Filippi’s.
Some of the owners add their own dishes into the lineup. This location, for example, offers a pepper steak sandwich and a lemon chicken entree.
But we came knocking for pasta and the big, tender meatballs.
Visiting as a twosome, our kickoff was a small antipasto in which you’ll consistently find cubed Provolone, salami, mortadella, beans and veggies contained within a pile of iceberg or romaine lettuce. Dressed in basic vinaigrette, the dish is available in large and extra-large sizes as well. In any case, their portions are substantial.
Herb-dusted focaccia made in-house is your complimentary table bread. It’s accompanied by butter, and it is normally light and airy. Although in a second basket we requested to mop up our pasta sauces, the bread needed five more minutes in the oven. It was too doughy in the middle.
The entrees we chose were everything we wanted them to be — comforting, balanced and substantial.
My spouse’s pasta combo plate harbored a trio of items responsible for triggering most people’s Italian-food cravings, those being plump cheese ravioli, a slab of lasagna, and a large meatball that barely required fork pressure to cut.
The marinara sauce draping the dish tasted better than I remember from past visits. Its acidity and salt levels were exceptionally mild. And the kitchen applied it judiciously, allowing us to actually identify everything sitting underneath.
Filippi’s does linguini and clams with great finesse. Offered with either white or red wine sauce, I chose the former and practically rolled on the floor with excitement over the dish’s tender baby clams, the thin linguine cooked just past the al dente stage, and the sauce’s striking depth of flavor. In every bite, we concurrently tasted Italian herbs, garlic, lemon and the white wine.
A half-size carafe filled to the brim with house chianti wine paired lovingly to our meal. It was a swell bargain for $10.95, considering it evaded the harsh bite that often plagues this varietal.
Similar to the Little Italy location, and sans the Italian food market fronting it, the dining sections feature tables dressed in red-and-white table coverings, plus crystal-clear murals of Italy (or are those photographs?), and hundreds of empty chianti bottles swaddled in straw bottoms dangling from the ceilings.
This is family-friendly dining beckoning to the days when Italian restaurants were as unpretentious as the home kitchens of paesano grandparents. For the better, nothing much has changed here.
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto
10330 Friars Road (Grantville)
Prices: Soups and salads and antipastos, $5.50 to $22.95; appetizers, $5.95 to $16.95; sandwiches, $7.50 to $10.75; pizzas, $13 to $24.95; pasta dishes, $6.25 to $12.70; entrees, $13.25 to $18.25
— 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.