Delfina, on the other hand, is on the road to success. Tasty food, and perfect service. It's a recent addition to the Mission scene, in the space where one used to find Canto do Brasil. The cuisine seems to be based in the tradition of Tuscany, but there are a few items on the menu that stray as far away as France. The space is small (a dozen or so tables) but well-deployed, with an open kitchen, classic solid-yellow walls and white ceiling, funny rearview mirrors over some of the tables, and the promise of a back garden by spring. It has something of a still-moving-in feel: The staff can't reach all of the shelved wines comfortably, and cartons are stored in an alcove above the front door.
The menu is small but thoughtful. There are appetizers, salads, pastas (available in starter- or entree-sized portions), meat entrees, and sides. Recently the appetizers list included a delicious Jerusalem artichoke and potato soup ($6), thick but light in flavor, with hints of roasted garlic and an occasional chile flake, more vegetal in flavor than globe artichokes would be, and perfectly balanced. Also offered was brandade de morue ($8), a salty spread of preserved cod pounded with olive oil and cream. Crostini ($5), topped with cooked dark greens flavored with lemon, was also good, but a bit too salty and lacking in variety, although the flavor of the greens came through well.
The high point of the appetizers list was a house specialty, the ribollita da Delfina ($5.50). Ribollita literally means "reboiled," and that's what it is: a classic minestrone soup reduced quickly in a pan before serving so that it remains quite wet but is no longer a soup. It consisted of saturated bread, carrots, potato, and other vegetables in a garlicky, tomatoey, beefy liquid, charred slightly at the edges, intensely flavored and a joy to eat.
A Niman Ranch steak ($15) was prepared very simply, grilled and then sliced into tiny fillets, and served in a thin but rich and faintly winy sauce and garnished with fresh rosemary. It was a flatiron steak, both flavorful and tender. The steak came with french fries, which were coarsely salted, and picked up some rosemary flavor. They were oily, and not as crisp as fries should be, but they were pleasing anyway.
The first bite of Delfina's apple and quince tarte Tatin happened to be a bite of quince, and it was amazing. Quinces are astringent and unpopular, but in this setting they shone. The crust was flaky and thick, the flavor rustic. The dessert was served warm and accompanied by a small scoop of unexceptional vanilla ice cream, but this was a tart to return for. Similarly, buttermilk panna cotta was a cut above the expected: reminiscent of both cheesecake and yogurt, with a perfect consistency and a fascinating taste. It came with tart segments of blood orange that complemented it in an untraditional way, since both orange and custard are half sweet and half sour. Desserts are $5.
But food is only half the battle. In addition to masterfully meeting the requirements -- keeping track of who has what silverware, getting all orders right and well-timed, etc. -- the service at Delfina excelled. When the diners ordered differing numbers of courses, the waitress suggested that an initial soup be shared, to even things out. She refilled glasses adeptly, but not so frequently as to make one feel guilty for filling one's own. She checked the table's needs and contentment discreetly during every course. She rapidly sussed out which diner was drinking all the Pellegrino and suggested another private small bottle for him. When one diner had not chosen a wine by the end of the pasta course, she gave one reminder, and then personally recommended a glass of the Storrs Zinfandel ($6.50), which was not on the by-the-glass list but complemented the steak perfectly. (By the way, it's a delicious, interesting, hearty, alcoholic wine, sweet but not sugary, with a bouquet reminiscent of a fine rum-raisin ice cream.)
The waitress was also highly knowledgeable, opinionated, and enthusiastic about the food, which knowledge extended to both the details of preparation and the cultural and geographical background of various dishes. She lavishly and accurately described potential menu choices to facilitate decisions. She was confident and friendly but not overly chatty or familiar.
That's the kind of style that makes the difference. The diner is put so at ease that even if the food were lousy it would not feel like a bad experience. It's one of the few secrets to a top-quality restaurant. But it's an art, of course. If everybody could wait tables like that, standards would be a lot higher, and dining would be a different thing.
3621 18th St. (at Guerrero), 552-4055. Open Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Reservations recommended on weekends. Parking: a bit of a struggle. Muni: 14, 22, and 26 buses. Sound level: fairly peaceful.