May 3, 2002

Zio Mario’s Celebrates Cinco With Flavor

By Yvette tenBerge

Hungry San Diegans are in for a treat this Cinco de Mayo thanks to the entrepreneurial and culinary vision of the Espinosa brothers, a trio made up of an American certified public accountant (CPA), a Tijuana-based physician and a Mexican lawyer.

Vidal Espinosa, 28, stands in front of "Doñz Juanita," an original work by T. Otero.

Residents living near Zio Mario’s Italian Cuisine, located at 2121 Adams Avenue, know the name and menu well, yet within the past six months, the Espinosa brothers have revamped the restaurant’s image from that of a low-end Italian restaurant to a “romantic, casual” eatery that features top-quality food at very reasonable prices.

Vidal Espinosa, 28, is a CPA by day and a restaurant owner and operator by night. He is the brains and the brawn behind this year’s Cinco de Mayo preparations, which include walls decorated with paintings by Mexican artists (all of which are for sale), a menu that includes original recipes (Italian dishes with a Mexican flare), and popular, Mexican wines which he plans to introduce to his American patrons at roughly half price per bottle.

“I really knew that I would end up owning a restaurant one day,” says Mr. Espinosa, who was the accountant for the previous owner of Zio Mario’s. He smiles before admitting that while studying in Mexico, his MBA thesis was based on running a restaurant business in either the U.S. or Japan. “I like to cook, and I really like business.”

Both the gracious manner in which Mr. Espinosa greets his customers and the décor that he chose for the new Zio Mario’s show that he has a knack not just for the business of the restaurant, but for the customer service end of the industry, as well.

Patrons sit on mauve and purple striped chairs that blend with soothing, lavender-colored walls. Gold-framed paintings contrast with stark-white tablecloths, burgundy napkins and blue-stemmed wine goblets. Softly playing instrumental music drowns out the Adams Avenue traffic outside.

When asked what makes Zio Mario’s different than other eateries, Mr. Espinosa has a hard time singling out one thing. He refers to comments recently made by some of his customers. “We had three clients in a row compare the quality of our food to Mr. A’s, but said we offered it at Mc Donald’s prices,” says Mr. Espinosa. “These were three totally different clients on three totally different days, and I find that amazing.”

Indeed, from the taste of the food, it appears that this description hits the mark. For the price, it is rare that you get such a perfect combination of service, atmosphere and top-quality food prepared by a renowned chef. Executive Chef Nicacio Estrada previously served as a head chef for Fiesta Americana, one of Mexico’s biggest hotel chains, and has cooked for Mexico’s past three presidents.

Zio Mario’s Linguini Pescatore comes laden with chunks of fresh salmon, shrimp and calamari, and it is gently wrapped in a wax-paper bowl. The sauce on this daily special, which is priced at $16.95, contains a perfect blend of spices.

The poultry-lover will enjoy the Rosemary Chicken Pasta. For $9.95, Zio Mario’s presents tender pieces of flavor-filled chicken covered in a light rosemary and garlic sauce that makes the perfect dip for slices of the restaurant’s crispy, fresh garlic bread.

From the taste of the Veal Marsala, the meat is just as good as the poultry and seafood. The mushrooms are perfectly sautéed, and a large portion runs just $14.95.

Even those who normally do not like tiramisu will have to sample Chef Estrada’s version of this desert. Mr. Espinosa insists that many clients assure him that he serves the “best tiramisu in the world,” and one spoonful shows they could be right. Chef Estrada’s creation is an excellent blend of chocolate, cream and coffee flavors, and it is served in an elegant martini glass for $3.95. A couple interested in having a romantic, cozy dinner can do so seven days a week at Zio Mario’s for roughly $45.

Zio Mario’s Italian Cuisine can be reached at: (619) 297-3354 or at

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