Pin It

The Beat Goes On 

Wednesday, Sep 2 1998
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.

Among the seafood appetizers we tried, our favorite was mushrooms stuffed with rock shrimp ($7.50), lightly battered little puffs, juicy but not watery, served over a skimpy puddle of lemon-thyme aioli. Roasted black mussels ($5) were tremblingly tender to the last good bivalve, with not a closed shell in the generous batch; we found their slightly spicy roasted red pepper sauce rather one-dimensional. A couple of nonce seafood appetizers -- coarse-chopped, supermarket-quality ahi tuna tartare ($9.50) on a pool of straight-from-the-bottle sesame chile oil, and crab cakes with habanero creme fra”che ($9.50) -- seemed uninspired versions of '90s fad-foods (16 more months and they'll vanish from every menu!); they were offered reflexively -- according to "what will sell," rather than related to the kitchen's strengths.

Although many dishes recur, the menu changes daily. The evening's four pastas included house-made ravioli filled with Bellwether Farms' sheep's milk ricotta ($12.50) in a brown butter tomato "salsa" studded with small lumps of cambazola cheese. The cambazola was riveting in its richness, and the ewe's ricotta in the pasta filling tasted fresh and sweet, but the pasta pillows were thick and exceedingly al dente. The "salsa" was fashionably made of sauteed cherry tomatoes, which are too watery, thick-skinned, and wimpy-flavored to survive cooking. We also tried the risotto ($10.50), that evening a mild Tuscan rendition with sage, butter, and a bit of cheese. Although technically competent, it was too bland to stand as a separate course, but would have made a charming starch on a main course plate.

The wine list is well-chosen for the food but skimpy on the low end. (If price is paramount, there are cheap glasses of non-vintage "Little City" brand wine, whatever that is.) Not being a great pinot grigio fan, I was surprised by the paucity of other affordable Italian whites like verdicchio. We semisplurged on a luscious Davis Bynum chardonnay ($28) emphasizing fruit rather than oak. TJ enjoyed a favorite Friulian beer, Moretti.

The overfamiliar dessert menu includes gelato, sorbet, creme brulee, and chocolate truffle torte. In our tiramisu ($6), spongecake supplanted the traditional ladyfingers. "Not nearly enough mascarpone!" Mary Ann pronounced of the near-dry confection, to general agreement. A "summer berry Napoleon with Amaretto cream" ($6.50) wasn't layered like a true napoleon, but had various berries and almond-flavored whipped cream surrounding little triangles of puff pastry. "The pastry doesn't taste like butter," I said. "It tastes like frozen supermarket puff paste, made with shortening." "It's not Pepperidge Farm, but I'm sure it's some restaurant-supply puff pastry," said Mary Ann, who majored in baking.

Dull desserts scarcely matter, given the nearby abundance of Italian pastries and the joys of a postprandial North Beach cafe-crawl. What's more bothersome is the tension between the kitchen's strengths and the expiring food-fads on the menu, and between Little City's comfortable chat-and-gobble atmosphere vs. a sound-system volume that makes chat impossible and offers no pool tables, rock 'n' roll sushi-making, or swimming pools as alternative modes of recreation. At its height, Little City was a really special spot, serving great antipasti in a distinctively North Beach hangout; it faded when the antipasti ceased to be great and the atmosphere lost its internal energy. Little City now has fresh paint, clean windows, and a highly competent new chef. All the rest, as the beats might say, is illusion.

About The Author

Naomi Wise


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed