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`Modern, fresh and fast,' Assaggio hopes to set itself apart in caf?-crowded Gaslamp

The transformation was magical. The room had changed dramatically between morning and evening.

I had returned to Assaggio Italian Bakery & More for dinner, after having visited the premises in the morning. The difference in ambiance was very striking. What looked like a bakery and sandwich shop in daylight transformed into a romantic caf? by night, complete with dim candlelight and flowers on the tables.

Assaggio opened quietly just a few months ago in the Gaslamp District, the creation of two friends who both come from Mantua, Italy but who happened to meet in San Diego. Attilio Po and Oscar Contecini both spent the summer of 1996 at UCSD, studying English. Both worked for large companies in Italy. But both had the desire to be entrepreneurial and decided to open a restaurant in San Diego. They found a site on Fourth Avenue, across the street from Horton Plaza, an area that hardly needs another Italian restaurant.

At Assaggio Italian Bakery & More pastas and pizza are all freshly made. Pizzas are served in a small, personal size and are less than $3. Soups and salads are in the $2 to $6 range. The limited dinner menu emphasizes pasta, and prices for many entrees are under $10.

So, how does Assaggio plan to be unique? Oscar explained, "We represent the modern design in Italian food fresh, natural and fast. Everything is prepared fresh on the premises. All our ovens were manufactured in Italy. Many of our flours and cheeses are imported. This is genuinely Italian!" The idea was to create a small pocket in the Gaslamp that would look and feel just like a small caf? in Mantua, Rome or Florence.

Breads are the cornerstone of the dining concept. Assaggio bakes fresh breads daily following regional Italian recipes. The selection is limited at this time but mounds of warm ciabatta, toscano, pugliese and pane alle olive create an edible sculpture in the display case. Customers can purchase these delicious creations to take home. Assaggio also hopes to become a supplier of breads to other restaurants. The breads are used in many of the meals prepared during the day.

The plan originally was to open the restaurant only for breakfast and lunch. Italian deli sandwiches and pastas were the primary items prepared. The demand for dinners was so great, however, that the restaurant had to plan an evening menu.

The restaurant is located in a long, narrow space, with a small patio in front. A long counter runs along one side, with display cases for breads and pastry. The sandwich menu is written on a blackboard that is suspended from the high ceiling. Columns of table run along the other side, adjacent to a high wall of natural brick. The coffee shop area is in the rear of the room, housing a brass espresso machine that churns out espresso, cappuccino and lattes all day long.

By day, lots of light streams into the room. The tables are bare. The room does look exactly as intended, a place for a quick sandwich. But when the sun goes down, candles twinkle on white tablecloths and the romantic feeling invites diners to slow down, to enjoy, to linger.

Dining at Assaggio is very inexpensive. Breakfasts are under $5 and are made of lots of crusty bread, eggs and cheeses. The "Italian Breakfast" is a croissant and cappuccino. The deli sandwiches are named after Italian cities and range less than $7. Verona, for example, is served on a baguette and contains Bresaola, arugola, grana cheese, mushrooms and a sprinkling of extra virgin olive oil. Firenze (Florence, in English, my favorite city) is served on toscano bread, and has prosciutto and brie. Pastas and pizza are all freshly made. Pizzas are served in a small, personal size and are less than $3. Soups and salads are in the $2 to $6 range. I was not certain whether the Ceasar Salad was named after Julius or the hotel in Tijuana.

The limited dinner menu emphasizes pasta, and prices for many entrees are under $10. Seeking to serve healthier foods, the restaurant does not offer steaks, veal, fish and other dishes that are featured at more traditional Italian eateries. Ravioli, cut individually by hand and stuffed earlier in the day, are served in a butter sauce and are very tasty. Fettuccine Bolognese is made of delicious pasta layers and covered with a savory meat ragu. Tagliere Meat And Cheese is a heaping plate of prosciutto and a selection of cheeses, garnished with fresh vegetables that is a bargain at only $9. Dinner is topped off with dolci (sweets), pastries made on the premises and cappuccino made with genuine Italian coffee blends that is stimulating without tasting harsh or bitter.

Assaggio Bakery & More is a courageous undertaking of two young Italian entrepreneurs who want to introduce modern Italian dining ideas to San Diego. "It is like a baby. We have to learn to walk," Oscar said. Starting slowly to see what works, the restaurant's limited offerings are very fresh, very tasty and very inexpensive. It is definitely worth a try.

Assaggio Bakery & More is located at 835 Fourth Avenue in the Gaslamp. Reservations are not needed. Call (619) 234-6538 for information and directions.

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