IN GOOD TASTE: Enoteca Adriano: Italian favorites served by ‘family’


Written on a chalkboard at the entrance to Enoteca Adriano: “86 percent of a relationship is figuring out where to eat.”

In North PB, couples enjoying date nights have made this cozy spot, which features an Italian wine bar, their go-to destination.

They’re not alone. Since “Chef Franco” opened Enoteca Adriano in 2009, his indoor/outdoor restaurant has also become a favorite of families in the neighborhood. The reason?

“It’s my cooking,” said the Calabria-born Franco Tassone, who hails from a family of five chefs. While he’s passed on the majority of the food preparation responsibilities to his staff chef Jose Ramirez — “He’s my right-hand man. He’s more Italian than me” — Tassone does all the food buying and handles the morning prep duties, and it’s his lasagne that makes Wednesday nights (“Lasagne Night”) among the most popular of the week at Enoteca Adriano.

Tassone is a longtime fixture on the dining scene in San Diego, where he first moved back in 1989 after living in Italy, Australia and Canada. His first restaurant was Trattoria La Strada on Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter. In 1992, he opened La Terrazza on Prospect in La Jolla, which he ran for 14 years, and concurrently, from 1998 to 2003, the nearby Zao Sushi. Tassone’s first PB eatery was the short-lived Isola Lounge on Garnet Avenue, which he said was “ahead of its time. Garnet was not my style.”

With a more family-oriented, laidback location in mind, Tassone jumped at the former home of La Torta on Cass Street when its owner decided to sell. He invested $350,000 up front in a remodel … actually more like a redo. “I took everything down,” the gregarious Tassone recalled. “I just kept the roof.

“I took a chance” on the remote, at least compared to bustling Garnet, location, Tassone said. “But my previous restaurants were all in restaurant districts. I didn’t want to see another restaurant around me.”

It was neighborhood word-of mouth that began to steadily build business at Enoteca Adriano (an enoteca, by the way, in Italy, is a wine shop). “The key is knowing the wants and needs of your neighborhood,” Tassone said. “North PB is family-oriented. Families come here with their kids.” His restaurant, he added, “is not pretentious. There are no tablecloths.”

For the dating crowd, especially, Tassone offers no-corkage-fee nights on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, allowing customers to bring in their own bottles of wine without being charged. “They’ll eat a little more,” he figures. “Maybe even have dessert.” (Among these, by the way is the Pope’s Pillow, inspired by a Tassone family dish prepared for the pontiff John Paul II — pastry squares with vanilla custard, whipped mascarpone, strawberries and glaze.)

While there’s no pizza on the menu — “You want a good pizza? I’ll invite you to my house!” joked Tassone, who has a pizza oven there — you will find spaghetti and meatballs among the pastas. It’s especially popular with the neighborhood’s athletic, carb-loading types who often order it to go.

But spaghetti and meatballs is where the ordinary begins and ends at Enoteca Adriano. The house specialties, Tassone said, are the dishes under “Specialita di Burrata” on the menu, each $14. “I was the first one in San Diego to feature burrata,” Tassone said of this fresh Italian cheese. “Now everyone is doing it.”

Pastas are customer favorites among the regional dishes, all of them priced below $22, many prepared with seafood items like shrimp, salmon and lobster, all of which Tassone emphasized he purchases daily.

As for the wines, they’re all Italian, of course, brought in from 13 regions of Italy. “My menu is based on every region,” Tassone explained. “I take the best dishes of each region and pair them up with the wines.” The wines can be purchased by the bottle or the glass.

What brings so many of Enoteca Adriano’s customers back time and again are the familiar faces there: Besides Tassone himself, who is often on hand to greet arrivals, there’s Chef Ramirez, who’s been with Tassone at one restaurant or another for 21 years. The line cooks, too, have been with “Chef Franco” for 15 years. The “newest” server has been on staff for five years. “We’re a family,” Tassone said with pride.

Among the family is general manager Holly Lipps. Her eight-year association with Enoteca Adriano is a story in itself. “I owned with my brother the salon next door (to the restaurant), and I met Franco a few months after he opened,” she said. “We chatted and we became friends. He thought it would be a good idea for me to come in and make a little extra money.” She began working as a hostess three nights a week after the salon closed, then as a server while she was attending nursing school.

Ultimately, even after she passed her state boards, Lipps decided to go to work for Tassone instead. “The restaurant business with Franco was so great to me it was hard to leave,” she said.

Lipps has been general manager for two years at what she calls “the hidden gem of North PB.” While she believes “the food speaks for itself — Franco is an amazing chef and he’s very creative,” she attributes much of Enoteca Adriano’s popularity to its customers and the longtime staff. “We have so many regulars and so many locals who come in from the neighborhood,” she said. “Everyone here is just so close with them. That’s a draw. The same people have been working here forever. Customers know they’re going to know the staff.”

Enoteca Adriano, 4864 Cass St., is open daily 5-10 p.m. (858) 490-0085.