Indeed, if red sauce Italian is a dying art in many parts of the Bay Area, David’s Pastas & Pizzas is just one example of how Mexican Americans and other Latino cooks are the ones helping to keep it alive. David Jr. says he knows of at least two or three other Latino-run Italian restaurants in the Richmond-San Pablo area alone. They all offer the same kinds of Italian American classics you can find at David’s.
This is partly just a matter of catering to local tastes. David Jr. estimates that a little more than half of his customers are Latino, many of them second-generation folks in their 20s or 30s. “Hispanics in Richmond, we all love pizza,” he says, recounting how when he was a kid his family would supplement his mother’s Mexican home cooking with frequent excursions to Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars. Even though his dad worked at an Italian restaurant, “fancy” Italian food was never part of his life.
In fact, David Jr. says, the Guillens had to whittle their menu down from the dozens of pasta dishes in his father’s repertoire, prioritizing the ones that locals would be familiar with. But even with a menu made up almost entirely of crowd pleasers, David Jr. finds he always has to encourage customers to step a bit outside of their pizza-and-lasagna comfort zone—to try the carbonara, for instance, or the seafood-loaded spaghetti di mare.
To further cater to their customer base of Mexican families, the Guillens have started tapping more directly into their Jaliscan roots. A few weeks ago, they started offering a brief “cenaduría” menu on Friday and Saturday nights, serving the kinds of dishes that you might find in the Guillens’ hometown of San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco. David Jr. explains that his mother, Maria Guillen Cruz, cooks all of the Mexican specials.
So far, the rotating menu has included things like red pork pozole, crispy tacos and tortas ahogadas, or “drowned sandwiches,” the sauce-drenched specialty of the state of Jalisco. Guillen Cruz’s version—a nod to a specific torta stand in San Juan de los Lagos—features roast pork loin, onions, queso panela and an unconscionable amount of spicy chipotle-tomato sauce.
In the Richmond-San Pablo area, it actually isn’t unusual for a restaurant to serve a full-fledged Mexican menu right alongside a comprehensive lineup of pizzas. But the Guillens say they aren’t trying to compete with the dozens of high-quality taquerias and taco trucks in the area. Instead, Guillen Cruz is staying focused on a small number of Jaliscan specialties like the wet tortas, which are relatively rare in the Bay. The idea is to allow the Mexican families who come in on the weekend to enjoy a nice, home-style meal while their kids can still get a pizza.