Conversation with a New Local: Owner of Italian Restaurant Buona Forchetta

From the decor - twinkle lights wrapped around trees, marble-topped cafe tables that tilt slightly on the sidewalk stones, and red-and-white napkins with single forks, to the authentic Italian food - fresh pastas, pizza dough and desserts made daily, we felt like we were in Italy.

Buona Forchetta pizza oven Sofia
The pizza chef at work in Buona Forchetta in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego.

Ever since I moved to San Diego, I have heard rumors of a wonderful Italian restaurant tucked away in the neighborhood of South Park. The little restaurant has been reviewed by Food and Wine, rated by Zagat and San Diego Magazine as one of San Diego’s best pizza places, and received the Silver Fork Award in 2014. It has been my intention to go to Buona Forchetta for years, especially since my family and I lived in a small town in Sicily before relocating to Coronado. We love authentic Italian food and culture.

Finally, something not-entirely-unexpected happened: the owner of Buona Forchetta, Matteo Cattaneo, moved to Coronado. The owner of one of the finest restaurants in San Diego is now a local! In the interest of supporting our neighbors, I went to check out Buona Forchetta. I also got a chance to talk to Matteo about his experience since moving to Coronado, his favorite restaurants here, and whether or not he’d like to open a second Buona Forchetta in Coronado someday.

Buona Forchetta
Buona Forchetta on a winter evening.

When my husband and I arrived at the restaurant last Friday night, it was raining lightly, but a crowd had still gathered outside. Buona Forchetta does not take reservations for less than six people — although you can order one of their famous Neapolitan pizzas to go and it will be ready in five minutes.

While we waited for our table, we watched the hustle and bustle inside the restaurant. I was surprised to see that most of the dining area is outside on the sidewalk. With twinkle lights wrapped around trees inside the dining area, marble-topped cafe tables that tilted slightly on the sidewalk stones, and simple red-and-white napkins with single forks, the interior felt cozy, friendly, and casually elegant.

It was, however, alive. Patrons filled every seat at every table, pouring wine and digging into homemade pastas and pizzas and laughing over cannoli and tiramisu. Cheerful waitstaff moved among them, shifting chairs, delivering plates, removing glasses, carrying take-out pizzas to the door. My husband and I smiled to hear Italian slinging through the air; “buona sera!” and “grazie” and “scuzi,” words we hadn’t heard in so long. It seemed that most of the staff were Italian, or at least fluent in it.

By the time we were seated at a small table with a window looking into the kitchen, my husband and I were charmed. He, not one for sentimentality, sighed and said, “Man, it makes me miss Italy!”

Our waitress appeared at our table. “Buona sera!” she greeted us. “Good evening, would you like to start with wine?” With her help, my husband picked a mild, mellow Montepulciano. “Dark cherries,” he commented. “Doesn’t taste too strong in the mouth but leaves you wanting more.” I chose a fresh, clean Falanghina white with floral, fruity notes. A waiter also delivered water in a recycled green wine bottle and with short water glasses. We really did feel like we were in Italy!

dining at Buona Forchetta
My husband examining the menu at Buona Forchetta.

The menu is large but not overwhelming, with the star players being the homemade pastas and pizzas. Buona Forchetta has a famous golden pizza oven named Sofia, which was built by Stefano Ferrara. The hand-pressed bricks of the oven’s crown and dome, and the special clay from Italy’s Sorrento region for the oven floor, ensure the uniformity and high temperatures (700-1000 degrees Fahrenheit) necessary to make Neapolitan pizza.

We knew we wanted to try some pizza from that oven, and our waitress recommended the Jove, which is one of their specialty pizzas. She also recommended the artichokes and Caprese salad from the appetizer menu, and we ordered one of the specials from the chalkboard wall as well.

Buona Forchetta appetizers
Our appetizers: Caprese salad and artichokes.

The appetizers arrived within minutes, as well as a small plate of fresh, crusty Italian bread. My husband dug into the artichokes right away, delighted. In Italy we would buy them from the backs of farmers’ trucks and steam them for dinner. Buona Forchetta’s artichokes were just the hearts and stems, trimmed down to the tenderest centers and prepared with mint, parsley, and olive oil. We dipped the chewy, dense bread into the oil afterwards, wiping up every last drop.

I started in on the Caprese salad, and immediately noticed the difference between this authentic mozzarella cheese and the rubbery grocery store mozzarella I’ve been eating lately. This cheese leaked a thick, rich cream when I bit into it and filled my mouth with flavor, instead of disappearing into the stronger flavors of the tomatoes and basil. The tomatoes and basil did stand on their own here, too, though, both generously sized and bursting with that southern California/Italian just-picked freshness.

Buona Forchetta Jove pizza
The Jove pizza, one of their specialty pizzas.

We had a few minutes to digest, and then our main dishes arrived. A waiter set our plates down and then shaved fresh Parmesan over the dishes to our taste.

The Jove pizza was unlike anything I had seen before. The large piece of dough had been pinched closed on one side and stuffed with fresh arugula (very authentically Italian) and topped with bresaola, an air-dried, salted beef. The other half was open and filled with soft burrata cheese. I closed my eyes with delight at the taste of that melting burrata on top of the perfect Neapolitan crust. I’ve enjoyed fresh pizzas in Naples hot out of the oven and endless pizzas at our favorite pizzeria in our town in Sicily, and that pizza took me back… and to a higher plane of pizza. Every bite was a delight (even when we took the leftovers home and enjoyed them later!).

Buona Forchetta meal
The lamb shank and cauliflower risotto special.

My husband had chosen the lamb special, which was a shank of lamb accompanied with a cauliflower risotto. We didn’t know what to expect, really, but we’re adventurous eaters and were excited for lamb, which is always a treat. The steaming dish arrived, the plate filled with lamb on one side and the creamy risotto on the other. My husband dug into the lamb and declared, “Perfecto!” with the first bite. All the clichés were true — “melt in your mouth,” “falls off the bone” — and we ate until we could eat no more. The cauliflower risotto was a wild card, but both of us really liked it. Each grain of cauliflower was similar to Arborio rice, with a slightly chewy center and tender exterior. The creamy Scamorza cheese held it together and gave it a delicious buttery flavor. I’ll be on the lookout for cauliflower risotto after this.

Buona Forchetta espresso and tiramisu
Enjoying an espresso and Nonna’s tiramisu.

We were contemplating dessert when two gorgeous plates arrived, one bearing tiramisu, and the other a cheesecake made with mascarpone cheese and topped with homemade raspberry jam. Our hostess insisted on coffee, and we settled on decaf espressi, something we haven’t indulged in since Italy. I later learned that all the desserts in the house are made by Matteo’s own mother, whom regulars affectionately call “Nonna,” or “grandmother” in Italian. Like all the nonnas I met in Italy, she makes an unforgettable array of “dolci,” or sweets. I’ll be back to have that cheesecake again, Nonna!

All in all, our evening at Buona Forchetta was unforgettable. I have already asked my husband if we might go back for our anniversary at the end of the month, and we have friends from Italy visiting in February that we definitely want to take to experience such an authentic place. Matteo has made some loyal fans.

But at this point I still hadn’t met Matteo yet. He wasn’t working that Friday night when my husband and I ate dinner, and so I returned another evening to the restaurant to see him at work, ask a few questions, and maybe get a photo by the pizza oven.

Buona Forchetta owner Matteo Cattaneo
Buona Forchetta’s owner, Matteo Cattaneo, by his famous pizza oven.

And there he is by the oven. But what you can’t see in this photo is how busy Buona Forchetta is around Matteo — on a Monday night, no less. When I walked in to the restaurant, I spotted Matteo briskly crossing the room with a lit sparkler fizzing on top of a birthday dessert. He set the dessert in front of the customer with a big smile, and then joined the table and his staff — and then half the restaurant! — in singing happy birthday.

Matteo found us a quiet spot at the bar, and I got to ask him a few questions about his restaurant as well as his new life in Coronado.

It turns out that Matteo originally came to San Diego in 2006 to study law for three months at the California Western School of Law; he was already a lawyer in Italy. While in the States, his friend offered Matteo a job as a waiter in an Italian restaurant in La Jolla. Matteo loved the work — “the ambiance, the people, talking to people” — but he was working so many hours.

At the time he and his wife lived just one block from where Buona Forchetta is now. “We saw this place,” Matteo said. “It was empty forever, and we thought, ‘What a good place for a restaurant.’ So [in January 2013] we started this restaurant. We thought it was going to be a neighborhood restaurant, and now” — he gestured to the packed dining room around us — “it’s craziness!”

Matteo’s wife wanted to call the restaurant buona forchetta, which literally means “good fork” but the expression actually means a gourmand, or someone who loves food and has good taste. Their vision was to recreate a pizzeria like they missed in Italy, a place where you didn’t go so much with just one person, but met up with all you friends for a meal together. They wanted to make a gathering place.

“We wanted to recreate something like what we missed from Italy,” explained Matteo, “something cozy, simple, where people feel like home. It’s not just the food, it’s what you give to people. People come and feel like they are in a family.”

And why did he and his family move to Coronado? Matteo put words to what so many of us feel: “When I moved to San Diego, I went to Coronado to the beach, thinking, ‘This is the place I want to live, it’s beautiful. This is where I want my family to grow up.’ In South Park we had community, but to live over there… it’s like living in a dream.”

He says his family — wife, two daughters, two dogs — all love Coronado. The family relocated in August 2016, so Matteo confesses he still feels brand new to the town. His favorite thing to do is walk his dogs, “but I get lost a lot, you go into these little streets, you know?” He laughed. “People are so nice [in Coronado], ringing our doorbell and bringing food, welcoming us to the neighborhood. A lot of our friends are our customers here, so we have been hanging out with them!”

When I asked him about opening a restaurant in Coronado, he said opening in Coronado had been his first dream, but they had never found the right space. “My neighbors now are always telling me about spaces that are available or could be good for a restaurant!” For now, though, he has no immediate plans to expand. He still needs to visit a few more restaurants in Coronado, too. “So far I’ve only been to 1500 Ocean and Burger Lounge! Very different,” he laughs, “and both very good!”

Lastly, I asked Matteo what his Coronado visitors should be sure to try on his menu. “Pizza, we are famous for the pizza. All homemade pasta. We do pretty much everything here in the house. Every morning we make the pasta, ravioli, lasagna. My mother is the back, she makes the dessert. Everybody asks, ‘Is Nonna here?'” This answer made it sound like I better try everything — which I certainly wouldn’t mind doing.

As I was getting ready to go, Matteo insisted I order a pizza to go, and how could I turn down that offer? I ordered the Puttanesca, a pizza made with mozzerella, capers, anchovies, and olives — a true Sicilian pizza. In the three minutes it took for my pizza to cook in that amazing Sofia oven, I watched the hustle and bustle of the restaurant, the orders being swept away to waiting tables, the Italian chatter around me, the smiling faces. I have been to many, many restaurants in San Diego, but I can confidently say I have never experienced one that felt so cozy or so delicious as Buona Forchetta.

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Becca is a Coronado local, military spouse, mother of three, and an ICU nurse on hiatus. In Coronado, you will find her at the playground with her kids, jogging to the beach, or searching the Coronado library for another good read.

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