Hats Off to Larry!

215 Church (at Market), 552-2469. Open 11 a.m. to midnight Wednesday through Saturday, till 10 p.m. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Reservations recommended for parties of five or more. Parking very difficult (except for Safeway shoppers, across the street). Served by all Muni Metro lines (Church Street station), the F streetcar, and the 22 Fillmore. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible.

A few years ago, I got a call from a stranger -- a friend of a friend of my friend Chet. He and his partner were looking for a food consultant to redo the menu at their cafe in Palm Springs. Their existing menu read like a Midwestern housewife's weekly meal plan: liver and onions Tuesdays, meatloaf (generic) Wednesdays, pork chops (no further description) Thursdays, fish (that's all she wrote) Fridays, etc. etc. Using Chet's highly sophisticated palate as my template, I started developing some fantasy food-schemes, e.g., "worldwide desert food." But Chet himself brought me back to earth. "You ever been in Palm Springs?" he asked. I confessed I'd never so much as passed through it. "Listen," he said, "gays in Palm Springs don't want that exotic stuff. They don't want gourmet stuff. They just want relaxing, familiar food -- they want mom food." Bam! a stereotype smashed. Whoops! I don't do mom food. End of story.

Chet's analysis solves the puzzle of some restaurants in the Castro. Like the densest-packed eateries in student neighborhoods, many Castro cafes aim their menus not at food nuts (like Chet and me) but at folks who've moved here from all over the country, who may love the S.F. atmosphere but miss the food back home. It's easy for a foodie to forget that going out to eat can just mean "to eat," not "to dine," and that it can be a pleasure to relax over food that's simply good in an atmosphere that's even better.

Chow is probably just what the Palm Springs guys must have wanted. Owner Tony Gulisano has had ample experience as a chef and consultant, including a stint with Spectrum Foods, the umbrella company of the Il Fornaio chain. Now he's soloing with a reasonably priced, informal, down-home community eatery, majoring in California-Italian with an Asia minor.

From Church, it looks like a tiny cafe, but once you enter, Chow reveals unexpected depths, with smallish tables spaced at friendly-but-comfortable distances in front of, alongside, and behind a long warm-toned wooden bar (where smoking is OK, hurray). The look is plain and pretty, cream and green with wood trims that match the bar. Portraits of cult film stars intersperse with bright oil paintings. A gigantic open kitchen in back displays a great wood-fired pizza hearth and a long wood-fired grill, both spouting heavenly flames. Gulisano's ace management extends to the details: Not only are the restrooms wheelchair accessible, but the ladies' is larger than my home office and features a big fresh bouquet of flowers. And only a month after opening, the kitchen staff already has the precision timing of Rockettes. Every item we ordered in two meals was cooked perfectly to the split second.

The menu includes manageable selections of salads, appetizers, pastas, pizzas, grills, a daily special sandwich, and desserts, with nothing higher than $7.25 (except for the variably priced daily fish special, around $11). A narrow choice of wines are available by both glass (mostly under $5) and bottle. Reds are decently if briefly represented; except for a verdicchio, however, most of the whites are on the sweet side, but the house chardonnay ($2.75) from Bogle is so harsh it just Bogles the mind. The longer beer list includes TJ's favorite, Moretti (from Friulia), which tastes like it was made for a marriage with pizza. There's also a healthy array of house-made lemonades, coolers, smoothies, and milkshakes. The sophisticated Purple Haze ($2.50), a blend of blackberry cabernet ice, vanilla ice cream, and raspberry, made a delicious dessert on our second visit.

My initial gander at Larry, our first dinner's waiter, produced a loony wave of cognitive dissonance, tenderness, and anxiety: The surface was regular San Franciscan -- buzz cut, earring, white shorts, brown spaniel-eyes, ebullient manner, and exaggerated mannerisms -- but his loud voice and underlying accent ("Ya done yet?") revealed the jokey-coarse stamp of one of New York's working-class Italian neighborhoods. In Little Italy, the Red Swans Social Club would probably have beaten him to a pulp, even though he coulda been one o' dem himself.

Both our appetizers displayed the glory of simplicity. We started with fire-roasted mussels ($5.95) cooked on a bed of coarse salt. The small, velvety-rich mollusks came with a tasty herbed-butter dip. Larry asked did we like them, and we said they were super. "Dat's because dey're farm-raised insteada wild. See how clean dey are, no bee-ards." Also fabulous was a slab of fire-toasted garlic bread with a generous, addictive tumble of ripe, herb-marinated plum tomatoes ($3.95). On our return visit, we started by splitting a slightly undersized main course of perfectly grilled portobello mushrooms (actually, it was just a single 'room), roasted peppers, and garlic mashed potatoes ($6.50), with a thin, delicious, herb-flecked brown gravy. "That's exactly the kind of gravy I keep asking you to make," said TJ. "Not that thick Southern stuff."

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