By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The spirit of Salvatore “Sam” Nicolosi is alive and well at Nicolosi’s Italian Restaurant, which the Sicilian immigrant originally opened with his wife, Francesca, on Goldfinch Street in Mission Hills in 1952. Here, at its thrice-relocated home on Navajo Road, he is captured in vintage photographs while the intoxicating aromas and flavors from his recipes for red sauce, ravioli, pizzas and more continue wooing customers.
Back-east transplants craving a taste of home are especially in for a treat. As a native Buffalonian, rarely do I come across the kind of small, cup-shaped pepperoni that addicted me to pizza at an early age. To my delight, these crispy-edged coins of strongly spiced meat carpeted the “Sicilian pepperoni” pie we ordered. Even better, they resided among a fresh layer of melty mozzarella and ribbons of fresh basil — and with an enjoyable crust that was both airy and chewy.
It was explained by our server that the coveted pepperoni is used only on this particular pizza, although it can be requested on others. He understood my excitement for it, saying he too grew up with the stuff in New Jersey.
Ron Burner is the grandson of the late Nicolosi. He owns and operates the restaurant with his wife, Barb. He cites a host of items that have remained untouched in their construction, such as the pizza dough, the sheet pasta used for making ravioli, the nicely seasoned beef-pork meatballs, and the “special” torpedo sandwich.
The latter envelopes cotta salami, Black Forest ham, Provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. It sings to Nicolosi’s original Italian dressing, which appears to contain red-wine vinegar and oregano. Ask for it on the side because you’ll want to drench the entire sandwich in it.
We discovered from eating a hearty plate of spaghetti and meatballs, plus an order of mixed ravioli — half of them filled with beef, the others filled with creamy ricotta — that Nicolosi’s red sauce is a little sweeter than most. But we didn’t mind, as it escaped the acidic edge I encounter too often in Italian-American restaurants.
Our mound of spaghetti wasn’t overly starchy. It was boiled obviously in a large pot of fresh water. (Bravo!) And our forks glided through the soft, evenly textured meatballs of decent size.
As for the ravioli, they were as plump and pillow-y as those my grandmother used to make from scratch on her kitchen table. The mantle of melted mozzarella on top, however, seemed unnecessary as these delicate purses were very filling and satisfying on their own.
Nicolosi’s arrived to this location in 2009 after taking a nomadic journey from Mission Hills to East San Diego, and then to Adobe Falls Road a few miles from here.
“We moved to Navajo Road because it was a bigger and better location,” said Burner, who added that at one point Nicolosi’s had four locations, including one in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
The restaurant today offers spacious dining areas, plus a front patio that feels more like an inviting porch of someone’s home, and a bar stocked with beer and wine.
In celebration of its 67th anniversary, the restaurant is awarding the 67th customer who walks through the door each day a $30 gift card that can be used on any menu items. The promotion continues until Dec. 15.
Nicolosi’s Italian Restaurant
7005 Navajo Road (San Carlos/Navajo)
Prices: Antipasto and appetizers, $4.75 to $16.50;
torpedo sandwiches, $9 to $11.50;
pizzas, $14.25 to $23.50;
pasta and entrees, $10.50 to $23
— 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.