For the last 21 years, La Dolce Vita restaurant has been tucked away in the international shops courtyard at 1237 Prospect St. Food enthusiast Enzo Castiglione has helmed the restaurant since its onset to bring touches of his hometown to La Jolla. Known for his “mostly traditional” recipes, Castiglione greets patrons to get to know them and, when musicians perform at the restaurant, has been known to join in by playing the Cajon (percussion box) or singing.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Ragusa, Sicily. It’s a very small agricultural town. The main thing they do is grow wheat. My family grew wheat and grapes. I went to culinary school in Italy and worked for the cruise ships a bit to learn English.
I worked in the kitchen for a while and then … I waited tables. I wanted to work front of house and back of house. Then, I was the sous chef for a while.
When we would cruise to the United States, I would stay in Florida. I decided to stay and moved to California after a few years in Florida. I moved because everyone told me California was more like Italy, and I wanted to see for myself.
I first moved to Carmel (near San Francisco). Around that time, Clint Eastwood was the mayor. He has a resort and restaurant there and I worked in the kitchen. It was fun to work there. And next, I worked in an Italian restaurant there. But being from Sicily, I’m used to warmer weather and it was colder up there than I liked. So I came to San Diego for a visit … and loved it.
What did you do when you got here?
I decided it was time to open my own restaurant and I found this space. It was a French restaurant back then. I didn’t know it at the time, but the owner was retiring. I saw this space and thought it was perfect, so I asked the owner if he would consider selling, and since he was, I bought the place. I moved down here, opened the restaurant, and I’ve been here ever since. That was in 1996.
What was it about this location that was perfect?
The fact that you walk down a pathway into a courtyard; that’s very typical in Italy because there are a lot of small streets that lead to a piazza. It’s that kind of environment. It’s not so common here. I liked the idea of being able to walk into an open courtyard.
What is your food philosophy?
You have to cook fresh and keep it simple. Use fresh ingredients. Stick to the basics. Cook for the moment. I’m not extremely traditional, but I consider myself mostly traditional. Italians tend to make a big deal about one ingredient, or if one ingredient is different from how they do it. Some people make their tomato sauce with garlic but no onions. Some people make it with onions diligently.
My philosophy is to add my own touch. For example, my cannelloni has eggplant in it, and I serve it a slightly different way than what is traditional. But other items are traditional, like the grilled octopus, and pasta with seafood is common to where I grew up.
Other Italian foods, such as polenta, are more common in the northern part of Italy because the farther you get from sea, the less available seafood there is. When you get closer to the mountains, you see a lot more meat sauces and cream sauces. That is the style for that area.
How has La Jolla changed since you’ve been here?
This end of Prospect Street, when I first came here, was a food destination. There were more restaurants, but some closed and are gone. In 1996, the economy was getting better, so there were more tourists year-round, not just the summer. That has slowed down. There are still some, but not as much.
I get to know people and where they are from because I like to meet the people who come here. I help with the tables, I take part in every step. I even make my own wine.
Please discuss your winemaking.
I make just one kind, a Syrah. I grew up growing wheat and grapes, but I told my dad I didn’t want to be a farmer. As a kid, I’d help my dad make wine. My summer job was bottling. About 10 years ago, I started to miss it.
When you make your own wine, it’s different from anything you could buy. So I got a place in Ramona … just big enough for me to grow the vines and take care of the land. You can only get my wine in the restaurant because it is such a small production.
There is a lifestyle to it that reminds me of Italy, where you grow your vegetables, sell some of the vegetables, trade with your neighbor, maybe raise pigs. It was a surprise to me that you could find that in Southern California.
So now I’m all into that. I even got a horse! In Ramona and parts of East County, they have horses. Growing up in Italy, I watched spaghetti westerns … so I learned to ride. I felt the touch of that western lifestyle. Making wine and riding horses combines the Italian culture I grew up with and the western world I saw. It’s both. And I guess I’m both by this point. I’ve lived in the United States longer than I lived in Italy by now.
Do you miss Italy?
I didn’t leave thinking ‘I’m going to move to the United States,’ things just happened and I was able to build my life here. I didn’t think I would be here forever, but I have roots here now.
So yes, sometimes I miss it, but my life is here. I go back when I can. I miss the food for sure and the culture around food.
But I love La Jolla, too. The restaurant has given me the chance to meet lots of people. Some have been customers since I opened. I saw them when they were dating and then they would get married and now they have children.
What do you do with your free time?
Do you have free time?
(Laughs) The restaurant takes a lot of my time, but I have a wife and two teenage daughters. So Sunday is family time and I like to spend it with them.
Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series, shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (858) 875-5950.