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Cicciotti’s founder tests out Mexican cuisine in Rancho Santa Fe

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Gaetano Cicciotti in the dining room of his newly opened Mexican restaurant, Cocina del Rancho, in Rancho Santa Fe.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For 17 years, Gaetano Cicciotti has run several Italian restaurants and cafes around Coastal North County. But this month, he dipped his toe into an entirely different ethnic cuisine.

In April, Cicciotti opened a gourmet Mexican restaurant named Cocina del Rancho in Rancho Santa Fe. The 110-seat restaurant and bar takes over the recently vacated 3,500-square-foot space formerly occupied by Table Food + Drink and, before that, César restaurant.

With two Cicciotti’s restaurants in Cardiff and Carlsbad Village, as well as the recently opened Ground Up Café coffeehouse in Carlsbad, Cicciotti said he had no intention of opening another restaurant. But he found the opportunity to take over the lease on the property in Del Rayo Village too good to pass up.

The former owners, Richard Mazzera and Terumi Shibata-Mazzera, had leased the space about two years ago to open a Southern California location of their popular Northern California Spanish tapas bar, César. But when that concept didn’t work in Rancho Santa Fe, they redecorated and re-branded the eatery as a seasonal American restaurant named Table Food + Drink.

Not long after opening Table in January, they decided to close the business. Cicciotti said he was able to keep all of the furnishings they left behind. To give the restaurant a more authentic Mexican flair, he hired Jibran Construction in Encinitas and Chella Dia Design in San Diego to redecorate the space. All of the Mexico-inspired paintings on the walls were created by San Diego artist Pilar Montaño.

Cicciotti said he came up with the idea to open a Mexican restaurant after talking to several Rancho Santa Fe residents and business owners in the area about what they wanted to see in the space. Many told him that the area has plenty of expensive restaurants, but almost no affordable family-style restaurants and no Mexican food.

It wasn’t entirely a foreign concept for Cicciotti, a former Italian air force pilot who grew up in Naples, Italy, and moved to San Diego in 1995. Many of the cooks who have staffed his restaurants over the years are from Mexico and his wife of 23 years, Monica, is of Mexican heritage.

Cocina del Rancho’s menu offers a wide variety of traditional Mexican dishes including burritos, tacos, enchiladas, fajitas and combination plates. Most of the recipes are authentic to different regions of Mexico, like the mole poblano chicken and mole rojo beef dishes prepared with Oaxaca’s famed slow-cooked mole sauce. There’s also the Yucatan-born cochinita pibil pork dish and salmone yucateco. The menu also features some dishes inspired by native cuisines of Argentina and Spain.

Cicciotti said he’s using the same supplier for his meats, seafood and produce that he uses for his Italian restaurants, so the ingredients are fine-dining quality. The tortillas come from Vista’s Tortilleria Los Reyes. All of the entrees — most of which are served with rice, refried beans and tortillas — range from $12 for pollo asado tacos to $35 for a parrilla mista charbroiled chicken, steak chorizo and shrimp dinner for two. There’s also a children’s menu with items priced from $7 to $9 and Mexican and American-style desserts.

Cicciotti is also introducing a daily happy hour from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. with small plates priced from $5.95 to $8.95 and $5 drink specials. The bar is stocked with 110 tequilas and mezcals and specializes in margarita served in 17-, 27- and 38-ounce glasses. The house special is a $19 margarita made with Patrón Silver tequila and a miniature 50 ml bottle of Grand Marnier orange liqueur upended in the glass.

In May, he’ll introduce brunch, served from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The a la carte menu will feature traditional omelettes and egg dishes, chilaquiles, pancakes, waffles and French toast. Prices will be in the $11 to $12 range. He has also built a takeout entry door for to-go orders and GrubHub and UberEats pickups.

In the coming months, he also plans to add live music a few nights a week by tenor Daniel Hendrick, a regular performer at Cicciotti’s in Cardiff.

Since opening, Cicciotti said he’s been overwhelmed by the positive response from diners.

“We’ve been really busy and people are really loving it,” he said.

Cocina del Rancho, Del Rayo Village, 16089 San Dieguito Road, Rancho Santa Fe. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. cocinadelrancho.com.

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune