Carlo Still Cooks

When I was a kid growing up in the Western Addition, my entire knowledge of Italian cuisine derived from an ancient Shirley Temple opus that showed up on television with the frequency of Stiller & Meara and the Cartwright boys. In this classic, Shirley played a homeless waif who is befriended by a Lower East Side organ grinder and taken home to enjoy huge platters of spaghetti and meatballs served up by a corpulent mama and her -- at least to these young Anglo-Saxon eyes -- excitable brood. This garlicky caricature was underscored on those occasions when I was packed off to North Beach for a night on the town, Italian and Chinatown joints being the only places that welcomed 4-year-olds and worse.

I never really liked the Chinese places -- the tea, fortune cookies, and rice were too much for my reactionary taste buds -- but I loved the spaghetti and bread sticks of North Beach, and for at least a decade it never occurred to me that Italian food could be anything but scarlet-hued, noisy, and illuminated by candles stuffed into basket-woven Chianti bottles.

Nowadays, of course, you can wander far afield of Napoli's garlic-tomato axis without ever leaving the San Francisco city limits, and since Italy is as varied in its array of gustatory delights and influences as, say, the United States, the possibilities for multisensory, uninational feasting are positively exponential. (Checked out Lo Coco's prehistoric-Sicilian fennel-sardine cookery lately?) Vivande, a golden-hued, 4-year-old Opera Plaza temple to the refined delights of the old country, prepares and serves some of the city's more delicious examples of Pan-Italian cuisine.

Since the ristorante takes off from the (high-class) Pacific Heights deli that inspired it and bears its name, a devotion to good ingredients -- the building blocks of both a fine picnic hamper and a first-class meal -- is to be expected. Chef/owner Carlo Middione treats his elite imports and premises-prepared sausages, pastas, and breads (even the fish is cured in-house) with the proper respect, eschewing violent seasonings and flavor-masking excesses for the more subtle pleasures of freshness and simplicity.

This isn't to say that singular flavors aren't permitted to interact with one another. Take the portobello mushroom ($11.50), one of the menu's finer appetizers. The mushroom's meaty texture is brought to its proper succulence level through the roasting process, then combined with crisp, pungent cloves of roasted garlic, chewy-sweet oven-dried tomatoes, spiky goat cheese, and peppery strips of arugula; the result is a multitextured study in contrasts. On the other hand, our soup of the day ($6) -- a fragrant bowl of carrot, rutabaga, and fennel essence -- was simplicity itself. And while Vivande prepares the most basic of Caesar salads ($8), the dish's icy-crisp romaine leaves and wonderfully pungent Parmigiano lift it above the rudimentary.

Another starter, the calamari grigliate ($10.75), highlights the kitchen's strong and weak points both. On the one hand, the flavor of the squid, fresh and brisk as a shot of phosphorous, is perfectly showcased after a sojourn on the establishment's wood-burning grill, but the squid is stuffed with a ho-hum bread-herb concoction, a symptom of the venue's occasional overcommitment to underseasoning. And considering the high quality of Vivande's house-made bread -- and the fragrant olive oil that goes with it -- it's puzzling that it should be the main ingredient in another run-of-the-mill creation: panzanella, a lifeless rib-sticker composed of day-old bread and seasonings. Luckily it's a mere sidelight to a spectacular pork chop ($22), a moist, smoky triumph of the genre that, like the calamari, reveals the skill of Vivande's grillpersons. Here, silky strands of broccoli rabe form a supple complement to the deliciously charred pork and the spiky fruit mustard that dresses it. Meanwhile, the Chilean sea bass ($22), roasted till moist and flaky, triumphs over its barely complementary side dish of cabbage and potatoes through sheer succulence.

Prosciutti di Parma is one of those aforementioned elite imports that make you want to pack it all in and hop the next freighter for Genoa. It's an ingredient that, properly employed, lifts any dish to a culinary level heretofore unimagined, let alone experienced. It is the key aspect of Vivande's stellar steamed mussels ($14), a dish brimming with pleasure: not only the briny, luscious mollusks and the tough-tender, salty-supple prosciutto but what one fellow diner called "the best Italian sausage I've ever eaten" and the eternal triad of tomato, garlic, and white wine. A subsequent brunchtime visit featured a dish also fragrant with prosciutto: perfectly poached eggs, served over strips of Parma's gift to the world and crisp-spongy slabs of rosemary focaccia, doused in a satisfyingly creamy Parmigiano sauce and -- the final touch -- topped off with strips of pancetta, which is approximately to bacon what Lester Young is to Kenny G. You probably won't find a better brunch dish anywhere in the city.

Then there's the pasta. Saying that the food at an Italian restaurant is great except for the pasta is a little like saying that draught Guinness would be wonderful if it wasn't so dark, but I have yet to find American-sculpted pasta as mind-blowingly, soul-satisfyingly good as the stuff I've consumed in Rome. (Like Florentine gelato, the particulars of Roman pasta's superiority eludes me; it simply is.) Vivande's handmade pastas are merely perfunctory -- the kitchen's lumpish tagliolini ($13.75), dressed in a bland, oily pesto, is saved from itself by a half-dozen perfectly fried, impeccably fresh oysters, while an equally desultory fettuccine carbonara ($11.50) just sits there despite the presence of that amazing pancetta.

The star of the dessert menu is the Earthquake Cake ($6.75), a dense, fudgy pseudo-brownie elevated to the ethereal by the neighboring presence of a dreamy chocolate sorbet. A close second would be the trio of sorbets ($6.50) -- in our case strawberry, mango, and lemon -- each one a sweet-tart distillation of summertime bounty. The Crostata di Frangipane ($6.50) -- an almond tart with almond-infused ice cream -- and the tiramisu ($6.75) -- the time-honored, much debated classic -- are little more than lackluster here, but the decidedly American fresh fruit cobbler ($6.50) is a triumph: steamy, crumbly, packed with the pickings of the day (apple in our case), a dense, rich scoop of vanilla ice cream melting into the whole. The desserts, like the rest of the dinner, are served up by an impeccable and attentive waitstaff adept at replacing china and cutlery at every imaginable opportunity.

The restaurant's ambience is as carefully crafted as the food, setting it apart ever further from the red-checked establishments of my youth. Pompeiian murals, soaring ceilings, sculpted figures, cut glass, nail-studded leather, antiques, and collotypes combine in a variety of settings (bar, lounge, and three dining areas, including one alfresco) to create a playful, if studied, atmosphere. (The china is lovely and perfectly matches the contents of your plate; one deep chocolate confection was served on a platter limned in rich browns and blacks.) It's like supping in a particularly fashionable hilltop villa, albeit one looking out on Golden Gate Avenue.

Vivande Ristorante
670 Golden Gate (at Van Ness), 673-9245. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Parking: garage available. Muni: 42, 47, 49, 76. Noise level: moderate.

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