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Charisma Cucina Italiana in Hillcrest

Nothing says authentic like an Italian family eatery

Charisma in Hillcrest
Photo by Nichole Naoum

In Italy, food is held in high regard, similar to the way literature, music, art and religion is. It is a communal belief that everything should be done with passion, and the same philosophy applies to the preparation of food. Italians are fiercely proud of their signature dishes and feel that sharing meals together on a regular basis is a core component of family life. Meals are meant to be enjoyed and showcased, as opposed to being tossed on a table by a server, itching for you to leave so he/she can collect their tips and move about their day with no recollection of you. In the old country, the experience is a bit more personal than that.

It’s no secret that Italian cuisine has become a mainstream in the culinary world. However, with corporate-owned franchises plaguing the nation with bland food and mediocre service, it’s tough to classify the food as “authentic Italian” as they so boldly claim. Many of those pasta and pizza pit stops most of us have grown accustomed to end up serving everything except genuine Italian home-cooking. Thankfully, there are a few bona fide “cucinas Italianas” here in San Diego amid the imposters.

Nestled between 1st Avenue and 3rd Avenue in the heart of Hillcrest, Charisma Cucina Italiana embodies the ideal family-owned Italian restaurant. The quaint eatery is owned and operated by Napoli natives and cousins Marco and Gennaro Miranda, in addition to Marco’s father, Gaetano. Gennaro is usually the server if Marco is out buying supplies for the restaurant and vice versa. Both claim that because they have only a few employees to manage, it makes them more knowledgeable of their business and able to facilitate bonds with their customers.

Marco states, “We wanted to open an Italian place in Hillcrest because there is a strong sense of community here. Many of the people that come in are regulars and it’s great to build a personal relationship with them.” Gennaro adds, “We’re trying to build our clientele through word of mouth as opposed to advertisements, and it’s working for us so far.”

The interior of the place is simply decorated and emits a warm, inviting vibe, with framed pictures of the scenic Italian landscape lining the walls, along with a surplus of wine bottles resting above them. Not to mention the sweet sound of Italian being spoken in hushed tones amongst Marco, Gennaro, and Gaetano, which only adds to its charm.

The décor may be plain; however, the food is anything but.

Creating dishes that are made from only the freshest ingredients has been a long-term fixture in Italian culinary culture. Marco describes how the bulk of his earnings from the restaurant are reserved for buying quality ingredients from pricy vendors. He states, “Why put my energy into buying fancy plates or silverware? People essentially don’t care too much about these things. They care about how their dishes taste and whose company they’re enjoying at that moment.”

On my first visit, just a few months ago, I couldn’t have cared less about the design of the plate or shape of the silverware. The food was so good, it was distracting. I had ordered the Gamberoni, a bed of thick, black spaghetti mixed with olive oil and tomato sauce and finished with seven pieces of plump, jumbo shrimp. While I would characterize the Gamberoni as a plate of perfection, I wanted to venture out into the unknown and try something new the second time around -- the Gnocchi. The dish consisted of gnocchi, lamb ragu, asiago cheese, wild mushrooms, and an ever-so-slight sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley. Both of these delicacies were not only packed with flavor, but priced at under $20. Not to mention, during happy hour, (11 a.m. and 6 p.m.) a glass of wine is only three to four dollars per glass.

Whether you’re stopping by for a quick lunch or a family dinner, Charisma is sure to please even the pickiest eater’s palate. With generous portions, garden-fresh ingredients, and an enthusiastic staff, the quest for authentic Italian food stops here. Salud!