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From italy to San Diego, Sal Ercolano has been in the restaurant business his entire life and, despite major challenges in 2020, continues to grow and prosper, earning the Taste of Wine & Food Restaurateur of the Year award. Photo by Frank Mangio
ColumnsTaste of Wine

Taste of Wine: Our Restaurateur of the Year is Sal Ercolano

During the last year, for the embattled restaurant and bar business, there was no place to hide. The tsunami of coronavirus whipsawed these businesses dizzy with a plethora of “on again, off again” rules from federal, state and local governments, in an attempt to stem the pandemic. The carnage continues.

According to the Labor Department, restaurants and bars nationwide cut 372,000 jobs last month, in what should have been a banner December with holiday cheer and good times for all.

Throughout this crisis, Sal Ercolano made himself a promise that he would not shrink or back away from his commitment to serve his customers as his special guests and his employees as family. Through this past year, his charming, easy-going style was inviting and comforting in every aspect of the dining experience.

In fact, he added two fine dining restaurants, West End Bar & Kitchen in Del Mar and FLORA, his latest triumph in Carmel Valley. The most warm and memorable feature about FLORA is that it was named for his mother.

Sal was born on Capri in southern Italy, where his mother, at 82, still enjoys her life on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. As a teen, Sal quickly learned the restaurant business from his parents, who owned a restaurant on the island.

It didn’t take him long to master many dining positions and at 22, he left the island to seek his fortune. He landed in New York in the ’80s, eventually managing the well-known celebrity hangout Mezza Luna in Manhattan, then on to Hong Kong’s famous Va Bene.

San Diego beckoned in the ’90s and in a short time, he was the toast of the Gaslamp District downtown, with ZAGAT-rated restaurants Bella Luna and Paper Moon. His successes continued with in-demand names like Villa Capri Carmel Valley, Torrey Club Café in La Jolla, Come-On-In Cafes in several communities in San Diego and Seasalt Seafood Bistro in Del Mar.

He has earned a seat on the Board of Directors of the Restaurant Association of San Diego.

Throughout 2020 Sal brought more than a dozen great winery names to West End, with names like Caymus, DAOU and Cakebread, that featured a minimum five glasses of award-winning wines with five uniquely crafted culinary food courses that complemented the wine’s flavors.

The sold-out popularity of these dinners demanded some be extended, so Sal became known as the master of three-night celebrity wine dinners.

A special “Royal Night” wine dinner event is planned for Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 25-27, at 6 p.m. Schramsberg American sparkling wines along with Davies Vineyards, both from Napa Valley, will accompany a memorable five-course West End dinner for a limited number of guests. These three nights WILL sell out so please call for your place at 858-259-5878. Cost is $95 per person.


Introducing FLORA Bar & Kitchen

You might call this restaurant a labor of love, as Ercolano unveiled his latest restaurant a couple of months ago in Carmel Valley. A tribute to his mother, it’s called FLORA Bar & Kitchen.

The promise here is a restaurant that goes back to its roots, with fresh ingredients made with a homemade flair, from farm to FLORA’s Tables. At FLORA, Ercolano and dining room coordinator Elias OJaimy welcome you with share plates, greens, flatbreads, craft pizza, pasta, fresh fish and steaks. Don’t miss the most delicious dessert in all of Italy, tiramisu.

The FLORA wine list is a serious presentation of the world’s best sparkling, white and red wines. Our choice was a Mt. Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet, a luscious red that became one of my Top Ten Wines for 2020.

Wine dinners are also being planned at FLORA as soon as restrictions are lifted. Although dining at both restaurants is currently closed in San Diego, FLORA’s superior home-style recipes and fine dining are yours for takeout and delivery, Tuesday-Sunday, 4-8 p.m., in the Trader Joe’s shopping center in Carmel Valley. Call 858-461-0622 or visit

At West End Bar and Kitchen, place your takeout or delivery order Monday-Saturday, 4-8 p.m. at 858-259-5878, or visit Ask about free delivery when you call.

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator. Reach him at [email protected]