Now if it happened that my San Francisco zip code, good old 94115, were sealed off so we latte-sipping, Chardonnay-drinking, bistro-hopping upper bohemians couldn’t get out — and this is not to mention the entire Muni Railway being grounded, passports invalidated by Mrs. Clinton, and oh yes, the Bay Bridge falling down like some third rate Humpty Dumpty designed by a flunking student in Engineering 101 — well then, we’d have to suffer through with at least three of the greatest restaurants on the globe. These would be Delfina Pizza, SPQR and Out the Door, all of which have opened in the last year or so in the Upper Fillmore, within easy walking distance of this hungry fellow’s Victorian digs.
DELFINA PIZZA where, I hasten to add, the fare is much more than just pizza, is a hip spot all right, as nerve-jangling as Heathrow on Boxing Day (or any day, come to think of it), but one can hide in the eye of the din several seats down the handsome blond-wooded counter, right in front of the prep station where pert kitchenists plate non-pizza items from the slightly changing menu of medium-sized offerings. Meanwhile bouquets of breadsticks beckon.
The food here is what I call Berkeley Nouvelle Italian, one big Panissian shade more refined and inventive than the majority of dishes, however sensible and delightful, one finds in the trattorias and country inns of Italy itself. And naturally it’s sixteen shades more elegant than Eye-talian food such as one spills on one’s jeans in American red sauce emporiums of the six-pack sort. Vinaigrette might be the alternate name of Delfina thanks to pestos and salsa verdes so felicitously deforested they come off as first cousins to salad dressings.
Like Leporello rattling off the list of Don Giovanni’s conquests let me offer a catalog of what I’ve consumed in ten or so consciousness-raising lunches at that counter, surrounded of course by mysterious beauties consulting their blackberries and ladies of the district reporting on their travels to Irkutsk and Timbuktu. The donwbeat, please, Herr Furtwaengler. Thank you . . .
Fish first! Nothing at D.P. has enchanted me more than an order of grilled sardines split open for a spreading of mellifluously pureed white beans, all swimming lightly in a non-dense salsa verde constructed with let’s say four parts extra virgin olive oil to one of champagne vinegar with punctuations of parsley and capers for greenery and tang. A grilled swordfish with the aforementioned vinaigrette-like pesto is another laureate in the piscatorial department, flavor intense.
Now to pork. A bracioline with ditalini proved to be a rouladen of cylindered meat accompanied by a “mac and cheese” with a PhD degree, and maiale al latte, a dish I’ve seen in many a cookbook (and have even made it myself) but almost never in a restaurant on U.S. soil, was “no-knife-needed” snizzles of pork soaked in milk for an hour and braised to their moment of titillating truth, served in this case with a sage buttered polenta of unrivalled delicacy. If oatmeal were like this I wouldn’t have turned it down at childhood summer camp.
Veal anyone? How about thin slices of breast of veal served over wispy dandelion greens in an anchovy vinaigrette: this is titled Vitello Tonino. And vegetables — grilled chicories are presented with breadcrumbs and a bagna cauda comfortably light on the anchovy element while cauliflower with capers-garlic-crumbs-chilies was hot but not too hot to this delighted tongue.
Pastas are also on the bill of fare, highlighted by the house cannelloni which are characteristically light and different, with a bracing tomato-kale-olive oil sauce that tastes like white wine. My only complaint, and a minor one at that, would be that the escarole-ricotta-tomato-anchovy sauce entwined with pasta shells would have been tastier with fettuccine instead of those rather bland cornucopiettes.
On the way out one day I asked the server, do the people who come in here realize how terrific the food is, how pure and focused are the flavors disarmingly rising from one’s trattoria plate like benign mushroom clouds, or do they just think of it as a hip joint to eat pizza in (the pizza by the way are thin-crusted and good). Some of each, he replied.
Delfina Pizza — with scant signage because, well, you’re just supposed to be magnetized there by ineffable gastronomic vibrations — is on California Street across from the Molly Stone supermarket. SPQR, which doesn’t toot its sidewalk horn very loud either, is a couple blocks further down Fillmore, almost to Bush. This is a more intimate place, more bistro than brasserie, not tomb-like in its decibel level but consistently easier on the ear.
AND THERE’S NOTHING haphazard about the welcome from the rather chic but totally friendly staff. I’ve always felt cozy at SPQR — although truth to tell, prime time here threatens to be challenging. Mondays at 5:30 p.m. give you a five minute advantage over the hordes of techies-yuppies-psychiatrists-architects-venturists-gastronomes-etc. who know a good thing too.
I like to sit at the counter overlooking the pocket kitchen out of which deep tastes are harvested seven evenings a week. Nearby, between tables and kitchen, stands a stove traffic controller, calling out the orders as if from a pulpit — “Fritter”, “Fire a lamb” — in gentlemanly tones. Within his magnetic field young women in little chef’s head-coverings go about their tossings, squeezings, eye-droppings and so forth, these upscale babushkas putting the finishing touches on your stinging nettle torchio and so forth.
Pastas here can be amazing. Chestnut nicchi, for instance (pronounced neeky), with spigarello and burnt orange sauce!
This is a dish that might have turned up in one of the nouvellier albergos I’ve stayed in in Italy the past few years, The Posta in Moltrasio on Lake Como for instance, but I did not encounter it. I suspect the appearances of burnt orange sauces in the whole of Italy are as rare as performances of Leoncavallo’s Zaza. Or heavens, was that written by Mascagni? At any rate, this is a sort of ravioli stuffed with chestnut puree — a cousin, I suppose to the yellow squash-macaroon mush you often find served with brown butter and sage — and the ravioli are in fact made with chestnut flour. Snippets of fried guanciale, leafs of spigarello (from the broccoli family, I’m told) and of course that syrup of the gods, the burnt orange sauce, just one little penetrating bit of it, complete the orchestration.
Saffron pappardelle with braised chicken and a sugo of sweet red pepper and baby black olives is another must at SPQR. And no dish on old Fillmore is more interesting than those stand-up dumplings, five of them lined up like pygmy pyramids and stuffed with a mince of beef cheek with a hint of horseradish. “Burro and parmesan” says the menu and they’re not totally absent but I think this number would be even better with a very delicate horseradish cream sauce or — at the risk of my sounding like a gastronomical hick — an extremely light marinara.
Weekend brunch at SPQR brings the most buoyant and original baked egg concoctions imaginable (no Benedictine behemoths here) and the best American breakfast pancake in my experience, cornmeal cakes that is which are served with softened ricotta — no, that isn’t “whipped” butter — syrup and kumquats. Substantial but absolutely LIGHT, and just a bit crispy at the edges, these are true works of culinary art and fully comforting as well. They’re cozy. One washes them down with an exquisite citrus punch of meyer lemon, blood orange and tangerine.
AROUND THE CORNER on Bush, even more incognito than its brethren — these places are like websites without a title page — you’ll find the nouvelle Vietnamese (East Vietnamese?) Out the Door, the latest eating place from Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame. This branch should really be called In the Door because it’s not primarily a Take Out emporium.
Banquettes, a couple of counters and a literally “high table” for communal dining near the front and often sunbaked window are the choices of seating. The bill of fare is long, exotic, and, to judge by a couple of visits, elegant to the palate. The Chicken Pho (pronounced Phuh, of course, as in Phuh La La) is an intense bowlful of Vietnamese penicillin, with a clump of capellini-like noodles buried in the broth like a ball of wool. Sides of hoisin and chili sauce are provided for hotting up those noodles after you’ve dispatched the top half of that singing broth. A richer dish would be the noodle soup islanded with a comme il faut confit of duck. The French Connection, of course.