Trattoria Acqua menu and value come full circle

La Jolla’s dining scene is full of trendsetters and free thinkers. Passion and genuine affinity for one’s customers, whether regulars or first-timers, are also musts. Michael and Victoria McGeath, the husband-and-wife team behind Prospect Street’s acclaimed Trattoria Acqua, have plenty of both.

So much so that, in a time when most restaurants are raising their prices to cope with rising business costs, the McGeaths have lowered prices in an effort to provide value and relief.

“With the way the economy is going, I think people are looking for great value right now,” says McGeath.

All too often, lower prices equate to lower quality or diminished portion size, but that is not the case at Trattoria Acqua, which was recently named one of America’s Top Italian Restaurants by Zagat (a distinction earned by only four San Diego restaurants).

When devising their bargain-oriented strategy, the McGeaths employed the expertise of their executive chef Damaso Lee to ensure there would be no drop-off in flavor, portion size or the quality of ingredients they were using. With that ideal intact, the trio pooled their collective knowledge of Italy and the Mediterranean to develop some authentic new dishes.

One of the first things they came up with, Napoli-style pizzas, are a throwback of sorts; a staple from Trattoria Acqua’s original menu, which debuted 14 years ago.

These thin-crust wonders, which come piled with a variety of cheeses and toppings ranging from prosciutto to arugula to tiger shrimp and a forager’s array of mushrooms, come in at just $9 to $14 each and, in addition to being satisfying as lunch or dinner entrees, make for perfect family-style appetizers.

Customer satisfaction has always been paramount to Michael McGeath, who has worked his entire life in the restaurant industry and continues to enjoy what he describes as “a labor of love.” Fittingly, he labored over every phase of this cost-cutting initiative and, when the dust cleared, he and his team had an effective game plan that has scored well with the restaurant’s patrons.

“For lunch, we added the pizza and doubled the amount of sandwiches on the menu,” explained McGeath. “We also lowered the prices on the pasta dishes about $2 per item without cutting quality. For dinner, we took off roughly five items that were over $30 per entree and added several new items that are around $19 or $20 each. Our check average has dropped about $10 per person but our guest counts (are) rising, which is what I was hoping for. Throw in the fact that we validate parking and I think for Prospect Street, and even all of the Village, we have the best value for dollar right now.”

Value is a beautiful thing, but with restaurants everything inevitably comes back to one crucial question. How does it taste? And the answer is – fantastic!

If variety is indeed the spice of life, Trattoria Acqua’s menu is certainly well seasoned. There is no shortage of diverse yet traditional offerings for diners to choose from. The latest pasta additions to the bill of fare include buccatini carbonara, toothsome spaghetti tossed with fresh lump crab meat, spicy cappocola ham, baby peas and caramelized onions, and a luxuriously decadent macaroni and cheese which is made with gruyere, cheddar, provolone and mozzarella cheeses and laced with white truffle essence. The latter comes fortified with grilled free-range chicken breast or Maine lobster meat on request.

There are a wide range of protein-oriented entrees to be had as well. The pork osso bucco is a revamped version of Trattoria Acqua’s classic veal osso bucco dish and comes served over Umbrian faro and a risotto made with the best organic vegetables available from each day’s harvest. The Tagine d’Agneau, a tender braised lamb shank rubbed with a mix of Moroccan spices including cumin, coriander and cinnamon, melts on the palette with a deep, complex flavor that holds up to a fiery harissa (a Tunisian hot sauce made with smoked chilies, garlic and dried spices) served on the side and further tamed by the addition of pearly Israeli couscous. And if it’s red meat you crave, you will not be disappointed by the Filleto di Bue, a thick cut of filet mignon served over whipped potatoes and dressed with a fresh green peppercorn sauce.

For those in the mood for seafood, your timing could not be better. Trattoria Acqua’s annual Mediterranean Seafood Festival is in full swing and will be throughout the month of April. Each day, the freshest catches are flown in for Lee (whose focus while attending the Culinary Institute of America was seafood) to work his masterful magic on. Items from this special menu include black spaghetti with prawns in cognac cream sauce, oven-roasted Italian sea bass with fingerling potatoes, olives and pine nuts in blood orange sauce and a roasted Italian halibut (which has a higher oil content and, hence, a higher flavor content) with a Meyer lemon sauce that offers a classic citrus burst along with an added sweetness that compliments the fish and the accompanying farm-fresh vegetable accoutrements very well.

The not-to-be-missed entree from the Seafood Festival has to be the San Pietro, a John Dory fish steak served over oyster mushrooms, potatoes and roasted Cipollini onions with a rich white truffle buerre blanc that one diner described as “roll around in it good!”

“There are a lot of flavors going on in that sauce,” noted Lee, who enjoys coming up with delicious, inventive ways to prepare the fruits of the sea. “The San Pietro will be here for the entire month.” That gives you three more weeks to make this your catch of the day.

Trattoria Acqua is located at 1298 Prospect Street. To review the entire menu or make a reservation, visit

or call (858) 454-0709.