Crazy Like a Fox

Pazzia Caffe
337 Third St. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sundays. Credit cards accepted; the restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Call 512-1693.

Everyone who's been to Italy comes back baptized with olive oil and drenched in the pleasures of simplicity. My Italy was a September in the armpit of the Riviera, among local chubby mammas in bikinis and cheerful South American exiles who sat waist deep in the Mediterranean sipping perfect espresso or slurping multiflavor gelato pops from the cart. Scampi grilled over faintly fetid wood; the mushroom stand where chanterelles were dirt cheap; the raw chickens with grain-filled gizzards and sprigs of fresh bay. Side trips south to Genoa to see the silly, sentimental statuary in the Old Cemetery and to make a midden heap of garlicky mussel shells in Old Town. And then to Florence to see the silly old Cellinis and face down steak-size fungi.

I also liked the Italian-American food as a bride learning to cook in New York's Little Italy, where my neighbors, their surnames drawn from Sicilian landmarks, claimed to be Neapolitan, and the restaurants cooked dishes from both regions.

But in San Francisco, I've been disappointed by the typical "North Beach Italian" restaurants, their food reflecting the second generation's fading memories of Calabrian cuisine. (Too much pasta, dinosaur-haunch-size slabs of meat, "kitchen-sink" tomato sauces.) So I'm happy when FOB Italians open authentic trattorias here. In friendliness, informality, and price, the latter compare to the family restaurants in the Beach, but you can enjoy a light (or medium-size) meal without over-abbondanza, and with no urging from your newfound mamma to "Mangia! mangia!"

At Pazzia (the name means "craziness" or "folly") the original owners were indeed FOB Italians, but they abandoned both pazzia and pizza well before the location was redeveloped into risklessness -- that is, before MOMA opened and beefed-up policing erased the traces of Third Street's Skid Row past. Nowadays, Pazzia's location is devastatingly convenient: Just a short walk from Market, Moscone, MOMA, Multimedia Gulch, and Factory Outlet Ghetto, it's also served by five bus lines (and the pricey Moscone garages). My pal TJ used to live within aroma-range, so before he moved west we were regular irregulars. It's lucky that Pazzia's food is good, because otherwise, to get an affordable decent meal in the area we'd have had to suffer the screaming singles scene next door at Max's.

At lunch the place is really pazzo, hastily grinding out pizzas to feed the hungry hordes. If your posse arrives early enough, with luck you may score one of the two large umbrella-shaded sidewalk tables. Just add noisy friends, a friendly wine, ample tobacco smoke, and a three-hour lunch break, and you could be eating in Rome.

Evenings, the restaurant becomes a classic trattoria, small and cheerful, with banquettes along two walls and about 20 small tables dressed in white paper-over-cloth. The walls are decorated with bright expressionist oil paintings by the chef and owner, Marco Sassone. After the first set of diners are sated and gone, the room refills around 9 p.m. with gaggles of hungry young Gulchers who've just put their Web pages to bed. During the quieter early dinner hours, along with the usual small groups there are non-cruising solos of all types marooned after a day at Moscone. At the first of our dinners, TJ and I were seated at the banquettes between a pretty, 30ish brunette and a chic older woman. The latter gulped and ran, but the brunette sipped her Chianti with obvious relish.

Running the dining room is a charming Venetian who's never blind to the patrons' needs: Able to see the whole house, he doesn't hover but usually appears just when you want him, and he calls all women "Cara." (When I asked him what region of Italy the chef came from, he answered, "Mexico." I raised an eyebrow to ask if he was kidding. "But he studied cooking in Florence for several years." "Hmmm, an A student!" I said.)

The printed menu features pizzas, appetizers and salads, focaccia sandwiches, pastas, and a few "secondi" (main courses) of roast chicken, rabbit, or lamb. The menu most patrons order dinner from, though, is a handwritten photocopied sheet of the day's specials, the dishes obviously determined each morning. Aside from the pizza, the specials are typically a best bet, often more inspired than the printed choices as well as a dollar or two cheaper.

As you sit down, a server brings a basket of bread and fills a small saucer with aromatic green Nonnino extra-virgin olive oil to dip it in. On our first visit, the bread was a delicious focaccia. The second time, it was an even more delicious fresh, house-baked Italian loaf. TJ and I began our meal with the antipasto-for-two ($8.50). Some restaurants create antipasti from marinated vegetables, others heap the plate with cold meats. Pazzia is of the latter school, furnishing a mound of decent deli-grade prosciutto, mortadella, and salami, with veggies as garnish. At the side of the plate was a small heap of very fresh "spring greens" (which can be ordered on their own as insalata Pazzia). Whether by design or through incomplete stirring, some of the vinaigrette dressing sported a delicious undertone of anchovy, and some didn't; TJ absolutely refused to believe I'd struck anchovy until careful fishing brought up a nip of it for him. Garnishing the salad were two slices of slightly underripe tomato topped with basil-strewn rectangles of delicate fresh mozzarella. (These are the central ingredients of the insalata caprese.) Rounding out the array were bottled-tasting marinated artichoke hearts and kalamata olives. As we dug in, TJ tried a marvelous beer called Moretti, a Friulian brew to bring bliss to a beer-hater. From the region next door to Yugoslavia, it pays no obeisance to the sour, "hoppy" ethos of German beer-making, but is light and nearly sweet. From the Italian-dominated wine list, we also shared a bottle of user-friendly white Verdicchio at a user-friendly $17.

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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