The History of Istria (and the Gorilla on the Roof)

Albona Ristorante Istriano
545 Francisco (at Mason), 441-1040. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Complimentary valet parking. Muni via the 30 Stockton and the Powell-Mason cable-car line. The restaurant is not wheelchair accessible.

Nibbling on his fortune cookie, Nick disclosed his spotted ancestry. "My father's family is Dalmatian, from the city of Split, and I guess they have Split personalities," he said. "Totally mad! They can't tell the difference between the truth and a good story. While my mother's side, from Venice -- they're all about truth and honor; you don't dare question anything they say."

"Say -- have I got a restaurant for you!" I told him. "It's Istrian. You're going to get food like both your grandmothers made -- assuming they were fantastic cooks."

A week later, we reconvened at Albona Ristorante Istriano. Istria is currently part of Croatia, but from Roman times until the end of World War II it was Italian territory, and was specifically Venetian for several hundred years. A thousand years ago the mighty maritime kingdom conquered all of Croatia; Istria, just a quick sail across the Gulf of Venice, served as the entry point. To find it (it's marked on few modern maps), go to the upper-right-hand corner of Italy and slide round the bend north of the Adriatic Sea to the peninsula jutting below Trieste. To find the restaurant, go to the upper-left-hand corner of North Beach until you're on the border of the Wharfland, and slide to a stop just across the street from the Francisco Street Projects. You can't miss it; it's the only Istrian restaurant on the West Coast. And don't worry about the neighbors -- although Albona is unpretentious, it has free valet parking and a security guard to keep watch. (These amenities, we later learned, cost the restaurant owner more than the rent, but have been worth it.) Inside you'll find a room with a comfortable, plain decor and just 12 tables of various sizes, seating maybe 50.

We were welcomed with warmth (and perhaps a touch of relief) by owners Bruno and Rae Viscovi. Inside, we discovered that here as in the rest of North Beach, it was Prom Night. (Wasn't there a horror film by that title?) Bedecked with wrist-orchids or violet bachelor-buttons, pre-prommers were contemplating their plates with expressions indicating they'd rather have pizza. Compared to these purpled pizza-eaters, we looked like people who'd come on purpose.

We were still trying to decide on our appetizers when Bruno Viscovi urged us to order main courses immediately. Since the kitchen was running out of several entrees, he wanted to reserve our choices. "We don't serve atmosphere here," he noted. "If I wanted to make a surface impression, I would sponge-paint the walls. But here you have serious food instead. We are famous for our rabbit and our lamb." We were still toying with the thought of veal scallops with cognac-preserved cherries ($16.75). "The veal -- it's like scaloppine a la Marsala, but with cherries, too," Bruno said. "If it's your first time here, have the lamb instead." So we did.

"The story my family tells about my grandfather ...," Nick began, but we were distracted when the waiter brought warm butter and bread. It was fresh, true Italian bread, baked in-house or at worst in the neighborhood, with a firm, crisp crust and a light-textured interior. Since the kitchen was backed up, Bruno brought us a complimentary serving of chifeletti, pan-fried potato gnocchi (dumplings) in a tasty sauce based on chopped sirloin with a touch of cumin. Cumin may seem surprising in a North Italian context, until you recall Venice's crucial role in the medieval spice trade -- remember Marco Polo? Middle Eastern and Indian flavorings (cumin, cinnamon, saffron, raisins, almonds, etc.) settled permanently into the cuisine. "Ooh, little perfect puffy pillows!" said Mary Ann of the gnocchi. "Wow, fetal knishes!" I said. "Good stuff, Maynard," TJ said. Meanwhile, we sipped Albona's fresh-flavored house chardonnay ($19), made for the restaurant by a small (obscure) Napa winery.

Nick finally got to tell his story, or at least the start of it. "My grandfather was a big, strong man, 6 foot 2, who worked as a plasterer in rich people's houses," he said. "But he drank way too much wine and he was always broke. He always went to a certain bar, and the bartender had a trained gorilla living in a cage on the roof." But the arrival of the appetizers interrupted him. In addition to more chifeletti ($5), we had calamari ripieni ($5.75), tubes of small squid with a great, tender-firm filling flavored with garlic and parsley. Cioppino piccolo ($5.75) had tender prawns, clams, and big green-lipped mussels in a light-textured marinara sauce. Ortolana ($5.75) was a salad of broiled marinated eggplant and zucchini. The eggplant was on the mushy side but the zucchini was crisp and fine, rival to the legendary marinated zucchini at Tomasso's, with excellent olive oil. "The monster is extra hungry, send in the extra virgin!" I said. After a few more bites Nick waxed philosophical. "This oil is slightly bitter," he reflected, "like the taste of life itself. I figure if we completely spiritualize at death, all that will be left is a faintly bitter aftertaste, like this oil."

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