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Dining Review: Cardellino

Chef Brad Wise's down-home Italian flavors offer a unique steakhouse experience in San Diego's Mission Hills

Cardellino’s Italian-infused spin on a steakhouse boasts flowered wallpaper and a bar draped in philodendrons
Image Credits Photography by Vincent Knakal

The word steakhouse evokes a standard vision for most: a dimly lit, banquette-lined dining room replete with dark woods, leather, and stuffy yet spry waiters shuttling deeply marbled cuts of beef and stiff drinks to and fro. It’s one of the country’s most staid restaurant models, providing indulgence of the highest order, but while one is sure to leave a steakhouse feeling full, it’s rare to feel soothed. Unless, that is, one is dining at Cardellino Italian Chophouse. 

Located at the corner of Goldfinch and Fort Stockton in Mission Hills, this Italian-infused spin on a steakhouse from the prolific Trust Restaurant Group is anything but traditional. Red bricks, subway tiles, and flowered wallpaper take the place of wood paneling, and a bar draped in philodendrons is a bright, verdant centerpiece rather than some gloomy hideout. And like its patrons, Cardellino’s staff are far more relaxed and dressed in a more casual manner than a typical steakhouse’s buttoned-up brigade.

Cardellino’s menu is right in line with its motif, offering a laid-back take on steakhouse fare driven home by incorporation of expertly made down-home Northern Italian pastas and sides, all of which are served as accompaniments to steaks, ranging from an 8-ounce filet mignon, 12-ounce New York strip, and 14-ounce ribeye, to the show-stopping Bistecca Florentina, a 38-ounce porterhouse for two carved on the bone and presented on a mahogany platter. 

The flames of Cardellino’s stone hearth lend definitive char to every cooked protein, including whole-roasted branzino with capers, lemon, and bagna cauda, and a bone-in veal chop parmigiana. The latter is tender, impressively moist, and given lovely kicks of salt from golden-browned dollops of fresh mozzarella. 

Cardellino’s Veal Chop Parmigiana
Veal Chop Parmigiana

A note of smolder also accentuates a house-made sausage appetizer featuring what just may be the best polenta in San Diego. Rich, creamy, and downright soul-pleasing, perhaps no single item on Cardellino’s menu is as emblematic of the eatery itself. It’s every-person food blending Italian (polenta) and American (a cheesy grits preparation) to present lick-the-plate-clean comfort food in an inviting environment.

Cardellino’s pastas and contorni also bring on the warm and fuzzies. From classics like Spicy Rigatoni enlivened by Calabrian chili and a velvety vodka sauce to Sunday Supper Spaghetti in savory short rib ragu cut with crème fraîche, and agnolotti stuffed with a sweet, almost fruity beet puree served sheathed in pecorino with brown butter and toasted hazelnuts (you can find shades of PB&J if you try hard enough), texture and technique carry the day.

Cardellino's Sunday Supper Spaghetti
Sunday Supper Spaghetti

And when it comes to Cardellino’s side hustle, dishes are downright homey. Granted, it’s a home with a skilled chef and restaurateur — Trust Restaurant Group owner Brad Wise — but still. Whipped ricotta adds creaminess to the zesty tomato sauce that dresses toothsome orecchiette, Escondido-sourced Tuscan beans are lent piney vibrancy care of fresh rosemary, and cacio e pepe may never taste the same without the addition of uniquely earthy Burgundy black truffle.

Cardellino Chef and Trust Restaurant Group owner Brad Wise
Chef and Trust Restaurant Group owner Brad Wise

House cocktails are spirit-forward and include staples — “Negroni,” “Sidecar,” “Boulevardier” — as well as custom creations, many of which are designed to be more refreshing than head-wrecking. Case in point: “Cantalupo,” a gin tipple incorporating lime and cantaloupe juice that provides a burst of citrus up front followed by a lasting mélange of melon and herbaceous botanicals. 

Desserts like Tiramisu Cheesecake with espresso sorbet, classic Affogato, and Zeppole are composed and delicious, but like any steakhouse, saving room for them can be a challenge. Should that be the case, don’t overlook the Vanilla Soft Serve from Trust’s next-door ice cream enclave, Mr. Trustee Creamery, which is served with a strawberry and balsamic vinegar reduction, olive oil, and sea salt. It’s a delightful endnote.

With an easygoing vibe, bold flavors, and the best aspects of both steakhouses and trattorias, Cardellino sates far more than just one’s appetite. 619.600.5311, cardellinosd.com

Golden Forks

Service: 4.5
Timeliness: 4
Ambience: 4
Culinary Innovation: 4
Food Quality: 4.5
Cocktail Program: 4
Wine List: 4
Value: 3.5


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