Crazy Like a Fox

Ordering from the specials menu, we tried the spaghetti con gamberi, in a light tomato sauce with just the right amount of garlic; it was amply bedecked with slightly chewy medium-large shrimps evidently firmed-up in a citrus marinade before they were grilled. We also had the grilled swordfish, a large fresh-tasting piece but as thin as a Park Avenue socialite. The plumper center was tender, but the scrawny edges had dried out on the grill. Simply seasoned with a scatter of basil and a drenching of melted butter, it came with rosemary-sprinkled roast-potato wedges that were crisp outside, tender within, and saturated with coarse salt. Overgenerous salting is very Italian, although the Food Cops would probably call it "Stroke on a Plate." Sharing the platter was broccoli, tastily sauteed in a mixture of oil and clarified butter, with just a hint of garlic, and another hail of salt. (There are no salt shakers on the table. Obviously superfluous.)

Nearby, a vivacious Italian quartet was having a strange-looking dish, a plain pizza with a poached egg on top -- all the rage in Rome, the waiter said. I had a sudden memory of a similar dish in Manhattan (with veal scallopini instead of pizza), and this furnished a conversational opening to the pretty brunette sitting lone and lorn at the next table. She'd come from Austin, Texas, for a Java conference. We talked a lot about where else she should eat in San Francisco. "Tex" had the special rigatoni all' Amatriciana with a bacon-and-cheese laden tomato sauce. (We've had this in the past; it's very tasty but not hard to cook at home.) Tex pronounced it "OK," ate every last morsel, and helped us finish our wine. Then the future Webmistress went off dessertless into the night, while TJ and I concluded our dinner with a high, cool, velvety wedge of barely sweet, simply perfect ricotta cheesecake.

We returned a week later, vowing just to share a pizza and a tiramisu for review purposes. Our resolution vanished when we saw penne a la norcini among the specials; it was a dish we'd had a few years ago and have desperately craved ever since. The substantial penne were bathed in a luxurious cream sauce with fresh porcini mushrooms, spiced with ample black pepper, and jolted with the juices from nuggets of the best sweet fennel sausage I've ever had on this coast. "Wow, who makes this sausage?" I asked the waiter. "Oh, a friend of the chef's," he answered. "This is definitely not Molinari's," I sighed. "Not Molinari's!" he concurred. (You can also get this sausage on the funghi e salsicce pizza.) We also reconfirmed the pleasures of the Pazzia pizza (rather foolishly choosing the all-out "capricciosa" for $8.50, with mushrooms, artichokes, olives, and prosciutto, rather than, say, the simpler and hence superior Gorgonzola or anchovy versions). The pie is the crisp-crusted opposite of the frightening new "stuffed-crust" chain pizzas. Barely thicker than a flour tortilla and baked firm and crunchy, it's very thinly coated with sauce and cheese. Even with the capricciosa's baroque assortment of toppings, everything's balanced, nothing's in excess. This is not New York or Chicago pizza, but the pizza of the Palatine, and in two bites it ruins every other pie in town. Accompanying these sublime dishes, we tried both of the by-the-glass Chiantis: A Rocca Delle Macire ($4.50) tasted youthful, fruity, perhaps a bit bumptious, while a Le Corti ($5.50) was Burgundy-like in richness and suave tannins.

We concluded with tiramisu, more out of duty than appetite. Aside from the basic framework (mascarpone, whipped cream, espresso, and a waft of a chocolate product laid over some sort of pastry), there are a thousand tiramisus in the naked city. My favorite is a my friend Robert Lauriston's recipe, reputedly based on the Ristorante Milano version -- ladyfingers, shaved chocolate, and booze. Pazzia's is sponge-cake, vanilla, cocoa, no booze. It's light, very sweet, and good for what it is, but it's not the tiramisu of my dreams. The foam-mustached espresso I had with it, though, was all of 85 percent as good as the espressos I used to drink while sitting hip deep in the Mediterranean. For all I know, if I had a Mediterranean swishing around my legs on Third Street, it might even be 90 percent as good.

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