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Potato gnocchi with pancetta, ramps, English peas and summer squash

Change Artist

by Kersten Wehde Deck | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | June 25, 2013

Chris O’Donnell has cultivated a reputation for innovation that owes as much to what’s on the ever-changing menu as what isn’t. Urban legends abound about the La Villa chef’s unpublicized cured bottarga, and unconfirmed (really, truly unconfirmed) rumors suggest he has a foie guy. No need to worry about what you may be missing, though—the printed offerings feature more than enough delicious variety.

In just two short years, the affable O’Donnell—an S.D. Culinary Institute graduate and former cohort of locally revered names like Vignau, Ogden and Schroeder—has made La Villa, part of the Buon Appetito restaurant group, into one of the area’s premier farm-to-table Italians. Here is a chef who understands the power of perennial favorites (faultless pizza crust) alongside locavorian touches (zucchini blossoms epitomizing summer), not to mention imaginative and quite beautiful plating.

A devotee of the famous trappings of Chino Farms and Catalina Offshore Products, O’Donnell’s menu changes as frequently as his moods (or, more accurately, the markets and the tides). Tonight’s grilled octopus salad may get the boot tomorrow to make way for stone crab with smoked summer squash, and the veal cavatelli you savored last week may now be lamb. That may discourage “But I always have the chicken pappardelle!” types, but the good news is that it’s all delightful. O’Donnell is also mindful of goings-on about town; a recent weekend menu was exceptionally pasta-focused to fuel carbo-loading Rock ’n’ Roll marathoners. Talk about a chef who knows his city!

Going beyond the carbonara heaps and dangerously rich Alfredo hawked by so many of the neighborhood joints, La Villa’s menu expertly mines and showcases the culinary gems of the Italian coast. Sunscreen-caked Germans fresh off the docked cruise ships may raise an eyebrow at, say, the nightly crudo, which is about as far from spaghetti and meatballs as it gets, and hallelujah for that. The night we order it, it’s luscious little slabs of amberjack on vellum-thin slices of cucumber, topped with artfully placed radishes, celery flowers and flakes of gold. The gorgeous presentation is as bright and inviting as the flavor.

Inside La Villa, wood ceiling beams and antique-style murals are paired with a sleek bar and Eiffel chrome wire chairs. The result is part rustic Tuscan villa, part chic hangout. Well-dressed loft dwellers hold court and share several half bottles in the corner, while regulars and curious tourists claim the two-tops. The lively scene extends to the stylish patio, an ideal spot to sip a Roman Mule (which tastes identical to the Moscow variety in spite of the addition of Campari), admire the lovely murals that look pulled from a Madeline book (if Madeline were Italian), and indulge in a little avocado bruschetta, baguette slices smeared with California’s green gold and punched up with capers and hard-boiled egg. It’s easy to fall into a Euro-chic mentality here, especially alfresco—one night, I even overheard an Italian couple and their American friends debating whether or not they could smoke on the patio (they could not).

As for the quintessential food of Little Italy, La Villa’s pizzas are also very good and perfect for sharing; both the classic margherita and the more adventurous quattro stagioni (puckeringly salty speck, artichokes, olives and mushrooms, segregated on the pie in a way I don’t understand but don’t hate) deliver. The ranch-borne dishes fare best—an entree of prime beef short ribs, sitting amid a fondant of Chino veggies and whipped potatoes, is meltingly tender. Those same short ribs feature in a rich rigatoni with wood-roasted Romanesco, Swiss chard, zucchini and basil puree, and flecks of Parmesan. And with pancetta, mushrooms, asparagus, ramps and slightly crunchy English peas, the cushiony potato gnocchi is a textural pleasure.

The question remains whether the young O’Donnell (under 30) will commit to a long haul at La Villa. As for all its culinary come-upedness, Little Italy is still a neighborhood geared more toward casual than fine dining, and O’Donnell carefully (sometimes self-consciously) straddles that line. There is ambition here that may need room to grow beyond the grind of pushing out 400 wood-stoked oven-crisped pizzas a day. And given La Villa’s fast-spreading reputation—very much a breathless foodie’s word-of-mouth “Have you tried it yet?” kind of place—he’ll be courted. There’s something so exciting about a diamond still in its uncut, unpolished state. Experience this gem now. 

La Villa
1646 India St., San Diego,
619.255.5221, lavillasd.com

Hours
Daily, 11:30am-close

Where to Sit
The heated patio for people-watching, an indoor corner spot for a marathon conversation, the proper chef’s table to get O’Donnell all to yourself

About the Wine
Like the menu, the wine list is terrific and constantly changing, so keep an open mind. The very good selection of half bottles is reliable from week to week.

The Sweet Stuff
The caramelized pear polenta cake is superb and will be even better when it’s made with seasonal peaches.

What It Costs
Starters, $7-$24; entrees, $12-$22, dessert, $9