The Beat Goes On

Little City Antipasti Bar
673 Union (at Powell), 434-2900. Open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m., until midnight Friday. Open Saturday for brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner from 5 p.m. to midnight. There's also brunch on Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations strongly advised. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: hopeless. Muni via the 15 Third, 30 Stockton, and 41 & 45 Unions.

I remember, long ago, a stagette party in Little City's back banquet room, 24 bohemian women (ranging in age from pre-beatnik to post-punk) feasting on pasta and Italian red to celebrate the imminent marriage of our friend Shirley ("Shirley Goodnessandmercy," we called her); we'd have been less cheerful to know that after the baby's birth, Shirl and Charlie and Mister Cat would move a thousand miles north of North Beach. And there was the long evening when the semifamous Montana mystery writer paused en route to L.A., where he was stalking a movie deal for his last and worst novel; his friends met up with him at Little City and shared plates of tequila-marinated "prawns borracho," and the guest of honor downed shot after shot of peppermint schnapps. The movie deal fell through; later, Jim stopped writing. Little City, too, slowly declined in the '90s, crying for a fresh coat of paint and some fresh spate of energy.

But about 18 months ago, it changed ownership, and stepped onto the comeback trail with a new executive chef, Jeffery Hicks, a veteran of Cafe Pescatore, the Armani Restaurant, and Half Moon Bay's acclaimed Pasta Moon. I revisited the revived Little City with lapsed private eye Nick, lapsed line-chef Mary Ann, and lapsed goat-rancher TJ. We were seated in a lapse of luxury, a slightly cramped table in the dining space adjoining the brick-walled bar area, with a big clean window affording a view of the street and the handful of sidewalk tables.

On this Friday night, every white-naped table inside and out was filled -- couples and groups in their 30s and 40s, fresh-faced or jaded, casual or vaguely chic. I slipped into the back dining room to admire the exhibit of Jerry Stoll's wonderful old b&w photos of North Beach in the beat era: Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce, Pony Poindexter and Judy Tristano, Bob Kaufman and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti .... The beats, who were great restaurant-table yakkers, might have enjoyed Little City's eclectic ambient music mix (swing-era jazz, anguished new jazz, '50s crooners, reggae) but not at its conversation-killing, fake-frat-party volume, undiminishing even as the night latens, as the Little City empties, as the vanishing of the well-fed, well-fled flesh fills echoic void with yearnings for Prez, Lady, wookie-voiced Dex growling soft round-midnight cadences, muted late-night-ragas of the West ....

The menu has retained the "old" Little City's emphasis on antipasti and pasta. Trying a host of small plates is a great way to eat -- if the kitchen's any good, you'll like most of them, and none lasts so long that you grow inured to it. The waitress tried to sell us on main courses (prosciutto-stuffed pork chops, orange and saffron seafood stew, et al.) but nobody -- including the nearby tables -- seemed to be buying. The array of 20 appetizers is just too alluring.

The legendary "prawns borracho" are banished from the current menu -- "They're too '80s," explained the new owner, working the room. (I wanted to argue that "grazing" is also very '80s and we're still doing it.) "I'm in the food business," he said, raising Mary Ann's hackles with his tone, "and I know what will sell." But Little City's "signature" antipasto, baked brie and roasted garlic ($9.50), is still available. If you've never tried this now-familiar dish, not just very '80s but very '70s, the procedure is: Smear some melted brie on a slice of bread, then squeeze a few cloves of garlic -- a mild, nearly sweet puree after roasting -- on top of the cheese. Perhaps suffering lapses in taste or memory, we all thought the restaurant's current brie brand inferior -- probably some Wisconsin farm-kid, too young and simple to pair with the sly garlic. The house bread, though, was a wonderful walnut-studded country-Italian light wheat.

The grilled black Mission figs with prosciutto ($8.50) were a Coney Island of the mouth, four plump fruits swelling with an evocatively perfumed orange reduction, set on a small pool of reduced balsamic vinegar, alongside a heaplet of fine-quality cured ham. "Ooh, the taste, the textures -- so sexy!" I exclaimed. "Figs have always been associated with female sexuality," said Nick. "Not just the fig leaves of Eden, but the fruit. In Spain, there's an obscene gesture they call 'the figa' -- you make a fist and tuck the thumb through the first two fingers, like this," he continued, proving the point. Pears, although cooked a bit too long, also enjoyed luxury treatments: In one splendid dish, they adorned chestnut fettuccine ($8.50) -- subtly nutty tan noodles, substantial but not chewy -- dressed with Taleggio, cream, and precisely enough white truffle oil to serve as a subtle seductor, rather than an odorous buttinsky. Caramelized pears also paired up classically with Roquefort ($7.95), in a rewarding balsamic-dressed salad with lightly candied walnuts and peppery young arugula.

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