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A lot of restaurants have atmosphere, but no restaurant I've ever been in -- here or anywhere -- can match La Traviata's gorgeously obsessive ambience. In a city mad about opera, the place is the ultimate theme restaurant. Its walls are crowded with signed photos of famous opera singers (including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Joan Fontaine, and Beverly Sills, among many others, all apparently acquainted in one way or another with Zef Shllaku, the man who founded the restaurant 23 years ago and died in 1994). Arias play softly but clearly on the sound system under a theatrical ceiling of vaulted, latticed woodwork. The ceiling gives a wine-cellarish feel, but overall the dining room reminded me of a small Campton Place, tinted with rose.
To sit in La Traviata, at a table set with simple white linen and a single red rose, is to imagine that the opera house is across the street, waiting to welcome those who've just enjoyed a pre-performance dinner. In fact the restaurant is a few miles from the operatic action, on a vividly seedy stretch of Mission Street near the 24th Street BART station. It's an elegantly improbable secret.
If Pavarotti has eaten at La Traviata recently, he didn't go away hungry. Owner-chef Gjon Gjoni (he's Zef's nephew) offers a mainstream Italian menu, and the portions are substantial if not quite gigantic. But the kitchen's performance is up and down: Some dishes are magnificent, others slovenly. Ordering is like rolling the dice. Everything sounds good, but we couldn't figure out a pattern for determining what was likely to turn out well and what was likely to disappoint.
We had a bit of trouble with first courses on one visit. Our server, after taking our order for polpo vinaigrette (baby octopus), quickly returned to say that it was unavailable. We settled for the calamari vinaigrette ($5.75), which turned out to be a disappointing arrangement of squid rings and tentacles, diced red and green peppers, chopped celery, and minced scallions, dressed with an off-balance vinaigrette. The dressing was harsh with too much vinegar, and there weren't enough herbs and sugar to mute its edge. Also there was too much of it; the excess pooled at the bottom of the plate.
The Caprese salad ($6.50) had also been overgenerously slathered with the same vinaigrette. The rest of the salad was traditional: slices of tomato topped with rounds of mozzarella cheese and a black olive. The salad was inoffensive but ordinary: Tomatoes this time of year aren't likely to be good, and mozzarella, unless it's house-made (which La Traviata's didn't seem to be), tends to be rubbery and flavorless. It was odd to find such a summery salad offered as a special on a winter's evening.
We sat anxiously awaiting the main dishes, taking small comfort from the warm, fresh Italian bread the busboy kept bringing us. Neither of us cared much for the cannelloni de mare ($12.95), two crepes rolled like enchiladas and stuffed with a bland mixture of shrimp, scallops, scallions, and ricotta sauce. The crepes had been baked with a splash of marinara on top, which brought some color but no life.
Far better was the veal all'agro ($14.75). The scallops of meat had been sauteed in lemon and butter (which was thickened into a richly tangy sauce) and topped with artichoke hearts. It was a beautiful, simple Italian preparation. The plate also held an ample pile of tortellini in a bechamel sauce strongly scented with nutmeg, and a bright saute of julienned carrots and zucchini.
At dinner several nights later, we heard a server explaining to people at a nearby table about a recent increase in the restaurant's business, and, more generally, about the resurgence of the Mission. If the restaurant thrives, it will be because of such distinctive offerings as salmon soup ($4.50), a fish broth studded with chunks of salmon, white beans, black olives, tomatoes, and pesto. I'd never had salmon soup before, and I was wary about the fish's assertive taste. But the flavors melted together very nicely. Rounds of bruschetta ($3.95), on the other hand, were topped with an unremarkable spread of garlicky diced eggplant. It tasted all right, but could have used some color. (Eggplant so often turns an unlovely shade of gray when cooked.)
The ravioli Bolognese ($11.95) was a dish Pavarotti would approve of (and devour), and in fact was the best ravioli I've ever had. The stuffing of ricotta and spinach bulged, but it was the Bolognese sauce -- a tomato reduction heavy with coarsely ground meat -- that really set the dish in motion. There isn't much of a happy middle ground for ravioli these days; either it's coming out of a can, or it's a beautiful but inadequate collection of arty pillows filled with exotic ingredients and costs $20. But La Traviata's ravioli is ravioli the way it's meant to be.
The gnocchi Gorgonzola ($10.75) was another, and less successful, story. While the little potato dumplings were tender, and the bechamel sauce was, as always, alive with nutmeg, the Gorgonzola filling was one-dimensional and too strong. Almost anything would have helped -- some tomatoes or sauteed mushrooms, for instance. But the dish as presented was uncomfortably rich and without proper texture, like a side dish overinflated into a main course.
Dessert at La Traviata is a distinctly flat finale: a selection of creamy cakes that mostly resemble tiramisu. (There's that, too.) The mocha cake ($3.50) didn't taste much like either chocolate or espresso, but it was delectable with whipped cream: an orgy of empty calories.
We agreed on the way out that the food at La Traviata, while sometimes sharp and even memorable, is no match on the whole for that at, say, Bella Luna or Bacco. The restaurant's ambience, on the other hand, offers a quiet beauty and grace few other places can come close to matching. For that reason alone, La Traviata will always appear on a good gastronomic map of the city. But if the kitchen ever really gets it together, it will appear with a gold star.
La Traviata, at 2854 Mission, serves dinner daily except Monday from 4:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Call 282-0500.