At first glance, the vaulted ceilings, weekend valet parking and snappy white tablecloths at Palazzo Giuseppe might have you thinking it’s only a fine-dining establishment, but there’s more to this restaurant than that.
The original Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in Pismo Beach opened in 1988 based on chef/owner Giuseppe (Joe) Difronzo’s Cal Poly senior project for his political science degree. Inspired by Difronzo’s family heritage in the Pugliese region of Italy, the menu showcases housemade pastas, wood-fired pizzas, fresh seafood, hearth-baked breads and both local produce and imported gourmet items.
Over the years, “people had been asking me to come to SLO,” said Difronzo, and finally he “got the opportunity to do something downtown.” The interior of what would open as Palazzo Giuseppe in 2005 was an empty shell when Difronzo became involved, and “it was fun to be able to design something from the ground up.”
Though he stayed true to the concept of authentic, seasonal Italian cuisine, Difronzo took a different approach with the new restaurant, and he deserves top marks on this project as well.
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On Court Street in the heart of San Luis Obispo, “it’s a more urban setting, someplace you go into when you’re just walking around, so we wanted to hit on all eight cylinders — there’s the bar, the express experience, outdoor sidewalk tables, a private room, sophisticated dining — it’s got everything. It’s a little slice of Italy right here.”
The multifaceted Palazzo Giuseppe revs along with the help “of a great team,” said Difronzo, and it does indeed offer something for everyone. Enjoy a glass of wine and a meatball slider in the stylish bar during happy hour, or share an extra large pizza and a big bowl of penne pomodoro during the family dinners, or treat yourself to a housemade gelato from the express deli and eat alfresco.
“I’m really proud of our gelato, and if you’ve never tried it, you’ve got to have ours,” said Difronzo. Made in an authentic Italian gelato machine, Giuseppe’s versions feature ingredients such as market fresh seasonal fruit and Tahitian vanilla beans. “It’s lower in fat than ice cream — creamier, denser, and more concentrated in flavor,” he explained.
“We’ve also been doing weekend brunch for several months,” said Difronzo. Those offerings comprise everything from a smoked salmon pizza to a basket of housemade pastries to a Kobe beef burger, “all a la carte — plus our regular lunch menu — so it’s lighter fare in a nice, casual environment.”
Of course, Palazzo Giuseppe ably sets the scene for a comfortable, upscale dining experience. Starters include seasonal soups (recently a creamy artichoke) and a wide range of salads like seared ahi or a classic Caesar with rustic focaccia croutons and anchovy dressing.
Next, order one of the signature crispy crust pizzas, or choose from daily housemade pastas such as the spicy gnocchi alla amatricianna with pancetta and chilies, or the hand-rolled strozzapretti with a delicate spring sauce of sweet English pea cream, pancetta, and gorgonzola dolce topped with mint.
Heartier main courses run the gamut from osso bucco to veal parmigiana to beef tenderloin, but Difronzo noted that Palazzo Giuseppe patrons seem to prefer the lighter salads, pastas and pizzas, especially when made with market-fresh ingredients. To that end, he turns to local growers and producers, including himself.
“My passion is farming, so if I’m not growing it (at his South County farm) I’m shopping at farmers markets. I’m friends with all those farmers, plus we’ve got Morro Bay oysters, Cayucos abalone, rock crab from Avila … look how lucky we are here!”