Here in San Francisco I live in a neighborhood dangerously crammed with gorgeous yuppies, expensive boutiques, enough nail salons and cupcake shopettes to service a dozen arrondissements, and restaurants with good food one cannot enjoy because the hip quarters they inhabit have been designed by demented entrepreneurs to mimic New Years Eve party spaces where the decibel levels put Edgar Varese and the opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra (aka 2001) to shame.
And then, come to think of it, while much of the food is excellent some of it is too cute for words, the gastronomic equivalent of mindless, over-the-top forays into Euro Trash in current opera staging. Sample: long-locked Samson in a currentday hair salon . . .
So, quite frequently, I escape a couple of miles east to North Beach where the weather is better anyway, and the streets are filled with Chinese babushkas, Italian fishermen just in from the Golden Gate, French tourists with noses in maps, and cute people sunning themselves in Washington Square where the Cloud Nine tai chi’ers swing their arms like orchestra conductors in slow motion.
And in North Beach — no beach here, but it is North, and it t’aint the Upper East Side! — I find the Original U.S. Restaurant with its counter filled with habitues and a long menu that proposes comfort food categorizable as corner brasserie fare, retro perhaps but eternal in its culinary verity. Then too if one dines here often enough one becomes aware of all manner of personal “specials” added to an invisible side menu, sotto la carta you might say, created to satisfy the tastes of regulars suggesting this and that variation on the restaurant’s stated themes.
11 a.m. at 515 Columbus Avenue and the pots steam and boil in the open kitchen, the bread arrives — just in time! — and Gus the pantryman is slicing mortadella, chef Benny stirring salsa pomodoro in a giant vat, owner Gaspare turning on the overhead Faniculi Fanicula, Joelle the more impish chef in the crew fantasizing about how he’ll dot Arthur’s mashed potatoes with specks of olive to give them a pretty face.
And Renee the incomparable server is adjusting her apron, preparing to make us feel all cozy in her Spaghetti Row Shangri La.
Now the regulars arrive: Franco the jolly retired plumber, erstwhile maestro of copper pipe installations sans faute, who used to drive one of those Mercedes 300SL’s with the doors that open like flapping wings; good and silent Filippo who tinkles supper club ivories by night; heart-of-gold Johnnie, retired from investigating the vexing innards of Xerox machines, who, when he isn’t golfing in the park, cooks splendidly for his Richmond District harem including lovely wife, guitar-playing daughter, diminutive mom and equally diminutive mother-in-law.
And there’s Paul who strides purposefully around town with thoughts of Veal Milanese constantly on his mind. And charming Steven, another golfer, who carries with him an appetite hugely responsive to the efforts of Benny, Joelle and Gus.
Now there are some who would cast the U.S. — by the way, that doesn’t mean United States, it’s U Sicilianu, because Gaspare is from Trapani — as an Eye-talian restaurant, a spaghetti and meatballs emporium and nothing more. But careful, here one finds a menu of great depth and considerable elegance. Example A: one day I ordered the Lamb Chops I’d been salivating over on other diners’ plates and asked for them with “that gravy.” That substance turned out to be an inspired Gallic brown sauce, a Perigourdine if there ever was one: Julia might have swooned.
And when I ordered the equally sumptuous-looking Pork Chops with mushrooms they arrived in what struck me as nothing other than a textbook Marchand de Vin.
Study that endless page of pasta dishes and you’ll find not only Bolognese, Pesto, Marinara, Alfredo, all the usual suspects, but Palermo (shrimp, scallops, olives, basil), Tarantina (mussels, parsley, white wine), Buongustaia (prosciutto, peas, cream), Boscaiola (bacon, onions, mushrooms, etc.) And there are Arancine, Sicilian deep fried risotto balls, and Panelle, garbanzo fritters also of Sicilian provenance. Pappardelle, fettuccine and gnocchi are all home made.
And the meat balls, good ones, are available at the Giants’ ballpark!
As for those sotto la carta items, well, Johnnie is responsible for Thursday Potatoes which translates as the boiled potatoes normally partnering corned beef wrenched from their usual role and deep fried in wondrous chunks, then served with chopped tomato and garlic. 5 Wows! I myself am the initiator of the Mort and Jack Salad which is the standard U.S. Salad of lettuce, tomato, onions and cannellini beans with the usual olives jettisoned in favor of thin slices of mortadella and jack cheese. Also credit me with advising you to ask for Salsa Verde with your Wednesday brisket.
And for Constantino the busser I like to leave a dollar embedded in the French bread remaining in the basket, a “lettuce sandwich,” I suppose, in oldtime gangster parlance.