For four years, I’ve been living in San Diego, California, and I’ve learned that when people talk about Italian food in our city, they always mention Buona Forchetta first. It’s a staple. The lines are long, the pizza is delicious (though I think Tribute in North Park is better), and most of the waiters have an Italian accent to make the patrons truly feel (or believe) they’re getting an authentic Italian experience.

So when I heard that a San Diego-based restaurant won an international pasta competition in Milan, Buona Fochetta was my first thought. Turns out I was wrong.

In 2017, chef Accursio Lota of Liberty Station’s Solare Ristorante won the Barilla Pasta World Championship in Italy. Accursio beat out 19 chefs from other countries around the world. While this isn’t fresh news in 2018 (I heard about this a couple months ago when I visited my favorite food blog Eater), I asked around to some of my friends if they had ever been to Solare, and many of them admitted they weren’t even familiar with the restaurant. Perhaps it was just the crowd I was running with, but I found it entirely strange there wasn’t more buzz around an international award-winning pasta champion.

On Friday, my wife and I decided to try the restaurant. When we showed up at the restaurant, I was greeted by a hostess in a red top and a black skirt that made her look like she was going to try and tango dance me to my seat. I made a reservation, thinking Friday night would be packed, and I looked around the restaurant and saw many empty tables. My reservation wasn’t needed.

Behind the hostess, there were poorly designed and bland signs touting more of Solare’s successes, including being named Best Italian Restaurant in San Diego, Best Chef, and Best Wine List by San Diego Magazine. How in the world is this place empty on a date night?

My wife and I were led to our seats, and we sat down in long tables that made us feel far apart, as if we were eating at a formal dinning hall in a Game of Thrones episode. On the far back wall, there was an old Fernet Branca advertisement, but other than that vintage touch, the design felt more like I was eating in a chain restaurant than a top-ranked, award-winning Italian restaurant.

The drink menu was overwhelming, and the cocktail list came across as a placard you would get in a beach bar before sipping on a pina colada and munching on some conch fritters. However, I was impressed by how many wines by the glass they had, and I could find a nice glass of wine instead of feeling like I would need to buy a bottle to try something memorable.

I settled on the Fattoria del cerro, vino nobile di Montelpulciano. When I was recently in Florence, I tried a Montelpulciano, and it was rich with tobacco and black cherry flavors. This wine didn’t have as much tobacco as that wine, but it was moderately intense with some hints of vanilla.

The waitress was constantly at our attention, and it felt like she was anticipating our orders and wants rather than responding to requests. She brought over some house-made bread with an olive oil that was so peppery I coughed a bit. (Nothing quite like a peppery olive oil.)

My first course was a tomato salad with anchovies. I’ve finally concluded that I don’t love anchovies, but they were fresh, and the tomatoes rivaled those I had in Italy. My wife had an eggplant soup that was ugly brown yet delicious. I would recommend ordering the soup and not being intimidated that the eggplant flavor would be too overwhelming. It was balanced and flavorful.

For my main meal, I ordered the Pappardelle al Sugo di Salsiccia, which is a House-made pappardelle pasta, Pecorino aged 365 days, South Creek Ranch sausage sugo, and roasted pistachios. Pappardelle are thick and long pieces of pasta, and it was fresh and wonderfully paired with the sausage. The roasted pistachios gave the pasta a bit of a crunch.

Overall, I thought the cuisine at Solare was wonderful, even though I only tried a few of the items as we were eating light. But I can’t wait to go back and try their tasting menu and perhaps try a cooking class.

However, I did understand why there isn’t much buzz around Solare. Perhaps the lack of conversation and interest, despite their awards, has to do with a booming scene at Liberty Station, but I have a gut feeling that it’s simply the design of the restaurant. The long tables, the tacky menus and placards, the general ambience of an Italian-restaurant chain are what I think hurts Solare. If you can get past the lack of buzz and the generic atmosphere, then you will enjoy the flavors and the freshness of the food. Sometimes, great food just doesn’t know how to be cool.

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