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1801 Clement (at 19th Avenue), 386-6266. Open Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations strongly advised. Parking difficult. Reachable on Muni via the 1 California, 2 Clement, or 38 Geary.
San Francisco summers bring visiting friends, relatives, and celebs, and last week the top celeb was my ex-neighbor Mary Ann's mother, Antoinette. A good mother is hard to find; Antoinette is one, a youthful charmer with Sicilian ancestry and an engaging drawl. She arrived from New Orleans bearing a shopping bag laden with maternal bounty: a giant-size Nawlins muffaletta sandwich from the deli, a bunch of scrumptious miniature cannoli from a Sicilian bakery, and an octet of huge stuffed artichokes from her own kitchen. A few days after this exquisite repast, we decided to invite Antoinette et al. to a local Italian dinner of, we hoped, comparable quality. Mary Ann and I discussed and discarded various possibilities, rejecting the raucous lawyer hangouts in the Marina, the pricey exec feeding troughs downtown, and the impossible Friday night crowds in North Beach. One name kept coming up -- Laghi (pronounced "loggy"), a trattoria that from its opening (about eight years ago) has had a quietly superlative reputation.
TJ dropped us off at Laghi's door to follow his knightly quest for a parking place (only slightly more accessible than the Holy Grail in that neighborhood, and nearly as dependent on miracles), while the rest of us were greeted by Mrs. Laghi's lovely warm smile, and silently led to a double-size table in a cozy alcove at the back of the simply decorated, middle-size dining room. The reason Mrs. Laghi smiled silently was that we wouldn't have heard anything she said. The last time I ate there (about six years ago) the restaurant was half-empty, and rather quiet. This time, it was packed, including several diners at the bar (their just desserts for not reserving). Rugless and fabric-free (but for the tablecloths), the room's sound level was deafening in our corner, although the Laghis kindly forbore to pump in any music. The noise ricocheted against the three enclosing walls and bounced off tables, plates, human thoraxes. "Why are all the restaurants I've been to lately so noisy?" I yelled to Antoinette, sitting diagonally opposite. "The -- last -- three -- you -- couldn't -- hear -- across -- the -- table!" "Pardon me?" asked Mary Ann's boyfriend, Nick, sitting catty-corner. "How'm I gonna get any good quotes from these guys?" I muttered to myself.
The tables bore oil and vinegar cruets, and the waiter brought a bowl of marinated lentils and another filled with heavy white house-made bread. Parked at last (over on Lake Street), TJ rejoined us, tasted the lentils, and stated what we were all thinking: They were too vinegary. I stirred in a tablespoon or so of the extra-virgin from the cruet, and the mix smoothed right out to everyone's satisfaction. Kids, you can try this at home, and in restaurants, too.
The menu changes every night, although each week will have common elements based on what produce is at its best. The mode is Northern Italian, but don't expect Tuscan austerity. Gino Laghi's combinations are often exuberantly creative while still playing by classical rules. Everything is cooked to order (risotto is a 25-minute wait, entrees take 30 minutes), so unless you start dinner by 6 p.m. or deprive yourself of a main course, the meal serves as your evening's entertainment.
Like the imaginative menu, the wine list is a delight, with plenty of Italian bottles for $20 and under, as well as higher-priced quaffs. Our Sicilian-Irish waiter, Mitchell (he didn't volunteer his name and ancestry, we asked him), expertly helped us navigate to an $18 Barbera that he accurately described as "velvety." He also gracefully accommodated our specification to serve "family style," bringing a full round of plates for each course -- no round-robin dish-passing or overloaded bread-saucers required. In fact, throughout the evening, service was perfect -- with neither inhibitory hovering nor imbecilic stock questions, the staffers simply showed up whenever you needed something.
Our salad of organic tomatoes and mozzarella ($6.50) had sugary "Sweet 100" microtomatoes, ripe quartered cherry tomatoes, and suave cheese, with scallions and cukes for contrast. "This dressing isn't overvinegary, I appreciate that," said Mary Ann, veteran of too many pizzeria salads. Grilled black figs wrapped in Carpegna prosciutto ($7.50) were a sensual departure from the more usual melon-and-prosciutto appetizer, the fruit edged with smokiness, the veils of delicate ham presenting a smooth, salty contrast. Snails ($7) served shell-less surrounded by a circle of comforting soft polenta, were gently dressed with butter, fresh herbs, mushrooms, and a hint of garlic. "Ooh, so tender, they really melt in your mouth," said Antoinette. We all loved them madly; we concurred we'd never had their equal. Although the dressings were similar to classic Burgundian escargots, the taste was rounder and easier, and if texture is any indication, these were surely fresh, not canned. When I mentioned that our backyard snails are the same petit gris breed -- a French immigrant brought them to Colonial America, whence they escaped in a massive snailbreak and have been feloniously chomping our gardens ever since -- TJ was ready to start an escargot-recapture program. Come to think of it, you clean their systems by feeding them cornmeal for a week. No wonder they went so well with polenta.
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