The Antique Italian Table

Capesante ($15), by contrast, was a conceptual disaster, a red-meat treatment awkwardly adapted to local health-nuts' seafood mania. Perfectly grilled sea-scallops were blotched with an "aromatic saffron-tomato" sauce resembling ketchup's wicked Italian stepsister. You're evidently supposed to use this crimson goop as gravy to ruin your accompanying mound of oversmooth, underbuttered mashed potatoes.

Several side dishes are offered at the end of the menu. Zucca gialla ($3.50) had pumpkin slivers sauteed nearly dry with garlic, mint, and wine vinegar, the natural sugars forming caramelized crusts, the flesh richly concentrated. Carciofi ($4.50) -- fresh baby artichoke hearts -- were sauteed with olive oil and lemon juice, but the leaf-tips remained spiky enough to scratch the palate. Given the thorniness of American artichokes compared to Italian varieties, perhaps these would be better cooked ahead and kept covered for a few hours before service to soften their spines.

Among the desserts ($4.50-6), we tried a panna cotta, a smooth, trembly vanilla custard surrounded by woeful strawberries exiled in their yet-unripe state from the Southern Hemisphere. Chocolate gelato with amaretto liqueur, crushed hazelnuts, and a shot of espresso proved a full-out sundae, with an unannounced swirl of whipped cream and a drizzle of unmentioned chocolate syrup. Tiramisu was of the model that made this sweet so popular before it came to North America and was cursed with spongecake, chocolate syrup, et al. in the name of chefly "creativity." Its ladyfingers were soaked in the right mix of rum and espresso, with just a little bittersweet chocolate and a not-excessive blanket of mascarpone custard over the top.

As we ate dessert, the room was emptying and the "lite rock" radio playing over the sound system grew audible. A headachy tablemate asked the waiter to turn it down a little. The waiter (who, as overburdened as his counterpart a few evenings earlier, materialized only to take our order and serve our food, never otherwise) turned the volume up. Notwithstanding some misses in the dishes and the understaffed, underlit dining room, Antica provides good reason to gravitate to the foot of quiet, comfortable Russian Hill instead of jangly North Beach when you're hungry for authentic Italian country cooking: The restaurant's best offerings rank among the city's finest in any cuisine.

Antica Trattoria 2400 Polk (at Union), 928-5797. Open Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations usually necessary. Parking: valet $5 (at Alhambra Theater). Muni via the 19 Polk, 41 Greenwich, and 45 Union, plus all Van Ness lines let off one block west.

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