San Diego's India Street certainly no longer plays its former role as the heart of a vibrant Italian neighborhood, even if a few trappings from the good old days remain.
It did play the role well, however, and among the contributions this low-slung street just north of downtown made was the creation of a type of simple, family-style Italian dining that has persisted well enough to have spread with the suburbs.
Papachino, a relatively new chain, has one North County location, in Del Mar's Flower Hill shopping center. The restaurant, just a couple of years old, is mirrored and carpeted and relatively fancy compared to its India Street progenitors, but with few exceptions the menu could have been written 40 years ago. This isn't the place to look for risotto with Italian white truffles, but for pasta in red sauce, pizza, veal parmigiana--and a little bit more--Papachino fills the bill.
Papachino has spiffed up the basic premise far enough to offer what it calls "designer" pizzas, but the menu basically sticks to the tried and true favorites that for decades constituted the only sort of Italian fare available in local eateries.
Probably the best way to start is with the antipasto salad, meant to be shared (a single diner could manage this as an entree, but not as a first course) and composed of basic greens lavishly garnished with two kinds of salami, cubes of provolone, both fresh and pickled peppers and giardinera , or Italian-style pickled vegetables. This is rustic but tangy, and it makes a good lead into either a pizza or plate of pasta.
Appetizers, uncommon at this style of restaurant, do exist, and are quite simple. Cheese-laden garlic bread tops the list, but since garlic bread (in the form of huge slices cut from special 10-pound loaves) accompanies most entrees, there is little point in ordering it. The other choices are in-the-shell shrimp, offered at $4.95 the quarter-pound, and mushroom caps stuffed with a choice of either Italian sausage or a crab-shrimp mixture. Not too surprisingly, the mushrooms can be ordered in combination, and neither version is particularly inspiring; in both cases, bread crumbs or some similar filling dilute the impact of the principal ingredients and make for a bland, uninteresting flavor.
Papachino sells a goodly number of pizzas from both the traditional list, built on a good, fluffy crust and garnished with a choice of all the usual items, and the shorter "designer" list, which offers individual-sized pies dressed with such imaginative combinations as smoked chicken, assorted vegetables, cream sauce and Fontina cheese. The Greek chicken pizza utilizes bites of a popular entree--herbed, lemon-scented roast chicken--along with three cheeses and fresh tomatoes.
The existence of Greek-style chicken may be a bit surprising at a place so devoutly home-style Italian as Papachino, but it fits the menu well enough. More typical chicken offerings join it on the menu, including breasts cooked in cacciatore and parmigiana styles.
At its most ambitious point, the menu offers veal scallops sauteed with mushrooms, olives and onions.
The top of the entree page takes its cue from India Street traditions, however, by listing lasagna (the menu insists that this is "the most popular lasagna in the world"), ravioli, spaghetti and a few styles of macaroni, all available in marinara or meat sauces, although in the case of spaghetti there is also the option of the simple and often lovely sauce of olive oil, garlic and parsley that goes under the name aglio ed olio .
A combo plate offers more than generous samples of ravioli, lasagna and spaghetti, democratically doused with the same basic red sauce, and all basic but tasty.
Somewhat more adventurous and decidedly good, the house version of paglia e fieno varies considerably from the usual interpretation of this dish. Generally speaking, the name implies white and green fettuccine (the two colors supposedly imply "straw and hay," the translation of the Italian name) tossed with ham, peas and cream. Papachino substitutes bits of crisp bacon, mushrooms and a rich, buttery cream sauce, and the flavor is quite appealing.
2650 Via de la Valle, Del Mar
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $40