Prior to the influx of young, hip residents, or the trendy Yoga studio with its strip mall facade, in 2001Caffé Calabria replaced an indoor swap-meet giving dilapidated North Park a beacon of hope that more good things were to come. Some consider the introduction of craft beer North Park and 30th Street’s game changing, defining beverage, but it was coffee that came first. Not to forget Claire De Lune’s debut in ’97, Caffe Calabria opened 4 years later and today both remain places where people congregate, caffeinate and give birth to ideas.
Caffé Calabria’s evolution is undoubtedly fueled by its coffee. What began as Grossmont Hospital’s coffee cart is now a full-fledged roasting operation, among so many other things, like espresso bar, soccer bar, paradise for electronic commuters (ah-hem), and now, Neapolitan-style pizzeria. It’s hard to imagine an uncluttered business with that much going on, but owner Arne Holt’s attention to detail, stringent planning, and overall vision to provide North Park a true taste of Italy’s multi-faceted caffes has made his so special to so many.
Holt hired a serious pizzaioloto man his wood burning oven that’s only the second of its kind built in the US. On the nite of my visit, at the two-and-a-half-hour mark, Anthony Rubino (above) singlehandedly cranked out over 200 pizzas, each as beautiful as the last. Rubino added a couple personal touches to Calabria’s pizza offerings, including his namesake pie with proscuitto, carmelized onions, gorgonzola, provolone, grana parmesan, thyme and ribbons of creme fraiche ($13) . I opted for the base-line Margherita D.O.C., simple with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil.
Servers ask if you’d prefer your pie cut, or whole as the Italians do. Since the idea of eating a whole pizza by myself with a fork and knife sounded brilliant, I went for it, and encourage you to do the same; there’s something delightfully rebellious about cutting into a pizza’s left, right, and center, abandoning the customary “slices” we’re used to. The dough was chewy and crisp in parts with bits of char and held up well under its toppings. Buffalo mozzarella has a depth of creaminess that sets it apart from cows milk (fior di latte also on the menu), and its aftertaste is similar to whipping cream or butter. In other words, not bad at all.
For the grand opening of Calabria’s regular pizza hours last week, there was live opera, and I’m hoping this becomes at least an occasional thing. The ambiance was so rich with the sights, smells and sounds of Italy that it was totally necessary to wash it all down with 3 glasses of wine, of which there’s a wide selection of Italian imports.
Guests can enjoy food, wine, and yes– coffee– in several seating areas, including high tables at the front of the caffe, bench seating down its center, raised wooden booths towards the back, or at the wine bar (pictured above). Servers deliver menu recommendations gracefully, so take advantage if you aren’t versed in Italian wines or cuisine.
Caffe Calabria's pizzaiolo, half-Italian half-Puerto Rican Anthony Rubino serving my pie.
“I’m sure there’s a machine out there that does it, but the dough I make by hand tastes better. It just does,” Rubino assured me. My dining neighbors offered me a bite of the house made fennel sausage with sage that tops the Salsiccia pizza and it’s off the charts porky and herbaceous at once. At Calabria, everything is either made in-house, imported from the Home Land, or sourced locally and organically when possible.
The Proscuitto e Burrata from the antipasti/insalte menu section.
Bresaola (thinly sliced dry aged beef served with grana parmesan and organic arrugala) and Oven Roses (wood burning oven baked pastries filled with roasted vegetables, goat cheese and parsley) are other standout starters. For dessert, don’t miss the Coppa Caffé (vanilla ice cream, coffee-infused chocolate sauce and chocolate-covered coffee beans that should replace Tic Tac as the nation’s breath freshening choice). Download the full menu here.