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Fillmore Best 

Wednesday, Jul 7 1999
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Florio
1915 Fillmore (between Pine and Bush), 775-4300. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Parking: difficult. Muni: 3, 22. Noise level: lively.

During this relatively balmy time of year a good way to approach Florio is on foot, particularly via the anthropological safari that is Upper Fillmore. Start at Chestnut heading south and you will traverse a display of subtly incremented San Francisco affluence in the space of a quarter-hour. The streets of the Marina, your starting point, are littered with recently unpenned frat brothers and sorority sisters at the dawns of their own fiduciary promise, tennis togs aglow, iced coffees atinkle, middle age a distant rumor.

Cross Lombard and enter Cow Hollow, where sybaritic, slightly older versions of the Marina-dwellers ruminate over shots of boutique bourbon. What follows are several blocks of hard, uphill climbing -- symbolic, if you wish, of the social Darwinism exemplified by the ancient bipeds who built the vista-gifted manor houses to your left and right. (Social Darwinism, in this case, may be defined as the hard-won ability to circumvent inheritance taxes.)

Once you've reached the hill's crest, bathe yourself in all that somnolent wealth before heading downhill again, past the antique shops, past the bakeries with the $5 brownies, past the houseware emporiums with the cobalt-blue martini glasses in the windows, to the absolutely appropriate surroundings of Florio.

Appropriate, because Florio exemplifies the good life as experienced along this particular stretch of Fillmore: friskier than anything encountered to the north (if still burdened with the odor of freshly printed greenbacks), but tempered, perhaps, by the friendly presence of the Fillmore, the Boom Boom Room, and Japantown a few blocks to the south. What's more, Florio is housed in the sort of dark-mahoganied, curtained-room setting favored by the movers and shakers of a bygone era, a Tadich for Pacific Heights, tastefully minimalist but lively. On a recent sultry Saturday evening the place was packed with happy, prosperous diners chattering away over their Cosmos, arugula, and gelato.

Opened for business six months ago by Joseph Graham and Doug Biederbeck, Florio conjures up a fun, informal, saloon-cafe ambience jazzed with a particularly American energy and sensibility. Chef Richard Rose's creations are right at home in this bistro setting, where an attractive menu of comforting Mediterranean specialties gets millennial, West Coast accents. Order a communal platter of hors d'oeuvres and a round of cocktails from the impressively stocked bar, settle in, and peruse the menu.

The garden radish selection ($4) is a particularly inventive appetizer: Four crisp breeds of Raphanus sativas (including an especially pungent purple-skinned variety) served up au naturel with the traditional accompaniments of sweet butter and bracing, crystalline sea salt. Bruschetta ($5) tweaks an old favorite, replacing the standard tomato with sweet, silky grilled fennel, served hot and fragrant atop thick slices of the establishment's exemplary country bread.

Fennel, onion, garlic, olives, saffron, anchovies, tomatoes, goat cheese, deep red wine, and other products of Europe's warm, fragrant southern flanks inform and define the menu proper. Florio's first-course ragout ($7) may be the best thing coming out of the kitchen, an intense, earthy-rich stew of mushroom essence served over a creamy, buttery polenta. The lobster bisque ($8) derives its particular richness from the sea rather than the land, with sweet, tender lobster meat starring in a creamy, cholesterol-rich opus. But the warm shrimp salad ($12), despite an interesting supporting cast of white beans, arugula, and olive oil, is bland (though texturally pleasant) and in need of herbs or spices or some kind of a spark.

Two items from the entree menu -- which includes such down-maison classics as steak frites ($18, $35 for two), roast chicken ($16, $30 for two), sole meuniere ($15), and duck confit ($14) -- are similarly uninspired. Hachis parmentier ($13) -- shepherd's pie to you -- combines tough, stringy, though admittedly flavorful meat with watery mashed potatoes. The fusilli ($14), not particularly fresh to begin with, is dressed with a forgettable sauce strewn with tough braised oxtail possessing, again admittedly, a nice, rangy flavor.

On the other hand, the Mediterranean fish stew ($16) is absolutely wonderful. All the pungent flavors of the titular brine are combined in a dish redolent of Provence and Genoa and Corfu and Barcelona. The broth alone, powerful, heady, life-affirming, would be reason enough for celebration, but the brew's fellow ingredients -- prawns, mussels, a meltingly tender whitefish, the sweetest, softest clams I've ever tasted -- lift the whole dish into the stratosphere. Fortunately there's plenty of that good thick bread to dunk into it.

A happy development in recent restaurant evolution has been the reappearance of the cheese board. Here in Northern California, where wild rice, foie gras, fine wines, and other previously imported delicacies are sprouting like poppies, home-grown artisanal cheeses are a welcome development, especially to someone like me who would almost rather eat a thick slab of Black Diamond cheddar than a Hershey bar with almonds. Florio's ever-changing selection ($8) features a stellar array of locally created goat's and sheep's milk cheeses; a nice bunch of grapes or maybe a crisp Gala apple would be a welcome addition to this rather primal experience, however. As James Bond once said of beluga caviar: The problem isn't getting enough, it's getting enough toast to go with it.

The rest of the dessert menu oozes with comfort: bread pudding with creme anglaise ($6); chocolate cake ($6); creme caramel ($6). Another entrant, the fresh fruit tart ($6), sports a deliciously buttery crisp-tender shortbread crust and a filling of strawberries and blackberries that, while not absolutely ripe (or even, perhaps, fresh), are still sweet enough to contrast nicely with their soothing creme fraiche base. But the sampler of three gelati ($6), made in-house, is an actionable misnomer: These pallid ices bear little resemblance to the extra-dense, dangerously creamy, flavor-bursting confections that make a trip to Florence so worthwhile. The mocha rum gelato is the best of them; the other two are flavorless, nondescript, and impossible to identify except by color.

There's a cheering, bubbly element to Florio that none of my carping will dampen. It's a splendid place for a lively meal enjoyed among friends who can agree on a nice bottle of wine and a shared delight in good food (especially lobster bisque, mushroom ragout, bouillabaisse, pungent cheeses, and fruit tarts). Loosen your Sulka, pick up the tab, and sip a Grey Goose, up, with a twist. This is, after all, the 1900 block of Fillmore.

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