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Colorfully painted and plastered with festive travel posters, Zinzino has the air of an authentic Italian restaurant magically transported to Chestnut Street. Its casual atmosphere manages to be at once fun, romantic, and even child-friendly. The long, narrow space features a bar in front and an exposed kitchen in back. The short row of tables in the front provides the quietest seating, but all the action happens in the back: Patrons perched on stools along a narrow counter get a firsthand view of working chefs in the kitchen, but you can still watch the show from nearby tables and booths.
The splendid wood-fired pizzas are made with a paper-thin crust, and the result is both crispy and chewy, kind of like eating a baguette. The outer crust arrives charred with big black spots. Since customers could be taken aback, Zinzino puts a warning on the menu, "The crust's outer edge is intentionally char-blistered for added flavor and crispiness. If you prefer a lighter crust, please let us know when ordering."
The eggplant pizza ($10.50) was big, yet skinny, its sides hanging over the plate. Covered with a thin layer of roasted eggplant and herbed bread crumbs, the effect was crunchy, chewy, and crispy, bearing no resemblance to deep-dish-style pizzas oozing with cheese. Subtlety is the key here, but flavors are intense.
The charring technique extends to a few appetizers, a treatment that's sometimes less than successful. The jumbo potato pancake ($11) was fried to a dark brown, and we had to cut away the burned edge. Unfortunately, the middle was undercooked. Covered with dill sour cream, smoked salmon, and a giant mound of julienned raw beets, it was easily large enough for two people to share. The same was true of the blackened (read: burned) pancetta and radicchio wrapped prawns with creamy white lentils ($12). A creative risotto-stuffed delicata squash ($8) was rich and creamy. If you don't want to share, these and the large salads on the appetizer list could be entrees.
The short menu offers salads, roasted meats and fish, pasta, and seven pizzas, including a pear, Gorgonzola, and prosciutto pie with caramelized onions ($14). (Unsurprisingly, Zinzino's chef is Andrea Rappaport, formerly of Spago in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.)
A wine list leans heavy to reds -- the alcohol of choice to accompany pizza in Italy -- and it's cleverly divided into categories called "light and earthy," "medium bodied, fruits, and spices," and "big, bold, and velvety." A smaller list of whites are described as "fresh, crisp, and clean," "medium bodied, fruity," and "full-bodied, oaky, and buttery." After a helpful discussion, our waiter chose a deep, dry, and flavorful Villa Antinorini Chianti Classico Riserva ($7.25). He provided first-rate service, replacing silverware between courses, cleaning the varnished wood table twice, and deftly expounding on menu choices.
Aside from pizza, Zinzino has a reputation for its lemon-roasted half chicken, served with a mushroom-studded bread salad ($15.50). The chicken arrived blackened (there's a theme here), but in no way did its color mar the taste of crispy, well-flavored skin and juicy meat. There were slices of lemon, basil leaves, and garlic cloves stuffed between the skin and meat. A delicious angel hair pasta was served with an inventive green pepper puree over tender scallops ($15). All entree sizes were generous, and pizzas could easily be shared by two.
While pondering the dessert menu, I joked that there was no way to char dessert. I was wrong. A roasted apple ($6), served with vanilla gelato and a scrumptious caramel sauce, arrived with completely blackened skin. It was not burned, however, and the skin was tender. You can also choose gelatos and sorbets for dessert. A rich scoop of espresso gelato ($3.50) was filled with flecks of bitter coffee bean.
Both the front and back of the restaurant have attractive heated patios, with awnings and windscreens, so you can enjoy a European outdoor atmosphere any time of year. Just be prepared for the black food, and remember that it's intentional.
2355 Chestnut (at Divisadero), 346-6623. Open Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations: recommended on weekends. Parking: difficult. Zinzino offers validated parking at Wong's Auto Shop at Lombard and Scott for $2. Wheelchair accessible. Muni: 30 on Chestnut, 24 on Divisadero, 22 on Fillmore. Sound level: comfortable.