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Sweet Spirit 

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
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Most of us, when we "go out for Italian," are secretly hoping for the fabled Italian warmth as well as satisfying food. But the hospitality of the old Neapolitan and Sicilian trattorias has become rare, largely replaced (as you move up the price scale) by American smileyness, brusque Roman efficiency, or chilly hauteur. And truthfully, if we peeked in a restaurant window and saw red checkered tablecloths and Chianti-bottle candles, we'd probably go zooming off to the nearest chic Tuscan place done up like a Ferrari showroom. Luckily, Palermo provides a happy medium -- no corny Chianti bottles, just warm service and wonderful food.

At Palermo, rosy-washed walls are covered with cheerful posters. Although named for the capital of Sicily (the large island south of Italy's "boot"), Palermo's food isn't purely Sicilian: The wide-ranging menu includes a page of appetizers, a page of entrees, a handwritten xeroxed insert of nightly specials, and a back page (don't miss it!) listing the house specialties -- mainly pastas, often with seafood. The owners now spend most of their time in the San Francisco branch, along with their best waitress and some talented chefs -- one from Bari (on the boot), the other Sicilian Tex-Mex.

Along with my regular guy, I enlisted two friends to help me sample that huge menu. The quality of the service struck us first. Perhaps from the size of our order, our waitress intuited that we'd be sharing our plates and brought our appetizers by ones and twos instead of all at once. There was still more food than our small table would hold, and somehow, as Round 2 was served, a wineglass was knocked over. The waitress not only moved us to a larger table that had just become vacant, and offered to pay for dry cleaning, she also comped us a bottle of the same wine. This is hospitality.

The wine that underwent this adventure was a lively, straightforward Tuscan white, Vernaccia de San Gimignano ($19), a good match for our seafood-laden dinner selections. Most of the choices are Italian (although Sicilian vintages seem to be absent), and span all price ranges. Along with bottles, on the back of the list you'll find half-carafes (average $12.50) and carafes (about $18), including a Trebbiano and a Montepulciano. These aren't risky anonymous jug-quaffs; the list proudly names names.

We began with "Buffalo salad" ($8), a frequent special, featuring flattened cylinders of thin-sliced, greaseless cold eggplant rolled around provolone cheese, served over crunchy, pungent radicchio and arugula, with salty black olives, ripe tomato, and fresh mozzarella slices as grace notes. The combination may sound heavy, but thanks to the sharp greens and the clean-flavored vinaigrette, it proved light and marvelously appetizing. Oysters gratinate ($10) were juicy, broiled under a very light bread crumb topping. The topping was great; the oysters were just OK. In fact, the undersized, flaccid bivalves in mussels mostarda ($10), which infused their sauce with slightly iodiny juices, were the dinner's sole dud dish.

Our final appetizer was a stuffed artichoke ($9), a veritable crown roast of 'choke. It was a huge specimen, its center removed to form a bowl holding an anchovied bread crumb stuffing. Our Sicilian tablemate pronounced it the best she'd ever had in a restaurant, almost as good as her mother's. I didn't tell her, but I think Palermo's is better. The restaurant's secret to keeping the stuffing moist lies in braising and serving the 'choke in a deep pool of well-salted chicken stock richly flavored with herbs and garlic. Don't let anybody take your bread bowl away (no matter how it crowds the table), because this sauce is made for sopping. Palermo gives you two types of bread -- a hard Italian baguette just made for mopping up sauces, along with wonderful house-baked soft rolls sweetly flavored with aniseed.

Aside from a handful of fish and rotisserie items, pastas dominate the entrees. The killer, we agreed swooningly, is the crab-stuffed ravioli ($13.50), thin pasta shells swelling with fresh sweet crab in a "pink vodka sauce" that turns out to be another name for sauce nantua, a sybaritic French reduction of lobster stock and cream. (Close your eyes and you might be eating 20 years ago at Ernie's, L'Etoile, or any other vanished temple of old-time haute cuisine.) Farfalle gratinate ($13) is another creamy charmer, pasta stuffed with mushrooms, with bits of wild mushrooms, chicken, and ham scattered about. The evening's special of duck-filled tortelloni ($14) had ravioli-sized orbs of pasta filled with tender but unassertive poultry; more typical of Sicilian cooking (or at least the American idea of Sicilian cooking) was the salty tomato and portobello mushroom sauce that bedecked the duck pasta. A similar garlicky, winey, mushroom-flecked tomato sauce appeared at an earlier meal, swathing penne Siracusa ($13.50), garnished with loose fennel sausage formed into meatballs and (supposedly) a scattering of peas, but that night they forgot the peas.

Risotto is not Sicilian at all, but North Italian, and Palermo's risotto tutti ($17) isn't really risotto -- it's risotto devised and cooked by people who don't understand risotto but who do understand shellfish. What else would you expect from islanders? Yes, the rice is arborio, as is proper, but rather than emerging firm-creamy, it's drenched in liquid and cooked extremely soft. Luckily, there's not much rice compared to the generous array of shellfish that tops it -- perfectly cooked prawns and bay scallops, slightly gritty but tender clams, and succulent coral-fleshed mussels (a bigger, firmer, altogether better species than we'd met in the appetizer mussels).

The finale to go for is the Sicilian-style cannoli ($4), one of the world's great light desserts, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a better version west of the Hudson River. A crisp, not too sweet cookie shell is rolled around ricotta whipped to an airy froth, lightly sweetened, and kissed by a few drops of lemon juice and a discreet few bittersweet chocolate chips. Palermo also makes a nice tiramisu ($6), light and straightforward with no extraneous ingredients.

Unlike so many local Italian restaurants, Palermo really does give you the feeling of a casual dinner in Southern Italy -- not just the food, but the sweet spirit, the relaxation, the way the menu specials reflect the seasons. The only aspect that could perhaps be more expansive is -- the size of the tables.

Palermo
1801 Clement (at 19th Avenue), 876-0311. Open Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 10:30 p.m. Reservations advisable. Parking: difficult. Muni: 1 California, 2 Clement, 38 Geary. Sound level: moderate, louder at center tables.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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