From the restaurateurs that brought San Diego the Puesto family of Mexican eateries comes…something completely different. Newly unveiled Marisi abuts its owners’ flagship location, but it’s worlds away in terms of food and décor, bringing elements of Italy’s Amalfi Coast to the downtown La Jolla locale that previously housed Whisknladle for more than a decade.
That Wall Street space has been completely transformed. Wrought iron gates give way to a courtyard-style patio where raised ceilings flush with white flowers provide a most elegant form of shelter. Colorful tiled flooring extends indoors to a bar where an expertly curated array of amaros and other Italian spiritual staples (plus an almost counterintuitively vast collection of whiskies) are as much a centerpiece as a grand, tulle-draped chandelier resembling an inverted wedding cake. That area is the domain of Bar & Spirits Creative Director Beau du Bois, whose experience includes the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley. His aim when developing Marisi’s cocktail list was to offer the familiar — aperol spritz, negroni, G&T — infused with unique touches steeped in technique and elbow grease.
For Marisi’s bellini, Napa white peaches are juiced, clarified using a centrifuge, and then blended with Portuguese white wine that’s force-carbonated just before serving. The house Old Fashioned features bourbon infused with dried apricot and blended with Japanese whiskey to balance the fruit’s residual sweetness. An espresso martini utilizes a custom blend of Papua New Guinea and Mexican beans selected by du Bois and roasted to his exacting specifications. Even limoncello — oft underappreciated — gets its due. Forged in-house with Sorrento lemons from Murray Family Farms, it’s clear versus cloudy and lacks the pithiness common in this liqueur.
As proud as du Bois is of his tipples, guests are advised to literally do as the Romans do and start off with a glass of bianco or rosso vermouth. Or for beer enthusiasts, the Marisi Italian-style pilsner is crisp, clean perfection devised by San Diego’s foremost lager expert, Doug Hasker of Puesto Cerveceria. Also recommended is an olive oil-brushed loaf of focaccia dusted with flakes of Maldon sea salt and served with an herbaceous, deep green oil that tastes of pepperoni, care of Calabrian chilies.
Like everything at Marisi, assorted appetizers and salads (Little Gem Caesar, arugula with pistachio and dried cherries, chopped lettuces with salami and piave-vecchio cheese) are devised to be shareable. Tempura-fried squash blossoms are stuffed with sweet-and-sour caponata, while earthy chickpeas and salty, funky olives lend Mediterranean flair to moist, meaty mackerel. Lamb and mortadella meatballs are brilliantly crusted yet tender on the inside and permeated by a spiciness that builds with each bite.
A ten-foot brick-and-tile hearth is a cornerstone of the kitchen, which is helmed by L.A. transplant Chad Huff (Providence, Felix Trattoria, Broad Street Oyster Co.). That Italian vessel caramelizes and coaxes flavorful juices from 60-day dry-aged prime beef (porterhouse or bone-in New York) and pastoral lamb served with toothsome sunchokes and a date purée (though the mint aioli from an artichoke contorni makes for a brilliant condiment). A half chicken with blistered tomatoes and line-caught fish of the day with fennel, capers, and olives also round out the highlights.
As succulent and show-stopping as the hearth entrees are, Marisi’s handmade pasta dishes are where the kitchen shines brightest. Rustic ribbons of pappardelle are coated in duck ragu (one of a trio of slow-braised sauces that also includes pork and lamb iterations) that comes across like a warming hug. Breadcrumbs flavored with bottarga (salted and pressed Sardinian grey mullet roe) lend texture and added oceanic nuance to clams and gemelli dressed in smoked brown butter. Rigatoni in tomato sauce and a guanciale-studded adaption of cacio e pepe are also on the menu, but if there’s a must-have, it’s the spaghettoni with sea urchin. A delicacy that’s typically singled out and left to stand on its own merits, uni is traditionally underutilized as an ingredient, but not in this dish. It’s not precious, it’s bold; a full-on sea urchin immersion with a plump, unctuous lobe sitting atop al dente noodles in an uni butter so rich it has mac-and-cheese vibes. Add in verdant piquancy from chives and it’s the stuff of dreams as well as one of the finest uni dishes anywhere.
Even this early on, Marisi is firing on all cylinders, likely the result of the two-year lead-up to its opening. Key staff put that time to good use, developing recipes, sourcing libations, developing a game plan, and making lots and lots of limoncello. The result is a young restaurant with the polish of a fresh-off-the-lot Ferrari. 858.401.6787, marisilajolla.com
Culinary Innovation 3.5
Food Quality 4.5
Craft Cocktail Program 4.5
Wine List 4