For Whom the Dinner Bell Tolls

You get off the J Church in Noe Valley and walk through the streets that are quiet on a Saturday evening and then you are in the Mission and the streets are no longer quiet. There are motorcars and buses and children flapping their arms while their mothers converse and in every block bars with open doors and crisp neon announcing their presence. You find a telephone and call a number and tell a voice that you will be arriving in five minutes with two friends, and will there be a table? And there will. It is Saturday night and the food is calling.

Papa would have liked La Villa Poppi: The food is good and fresh and true. Physically it resembles the cozy sort of place you might visit for a long and memorable meal after a day spent liberating the hill towns of Italy. The décor is rustic and intentionally unassuming: bundles of dried flowers and pasta, rough-hewn folk art, a sturdy old market scale hanging from the ceiling, and glimpses into a bustling kitchen. The ceiling is arched and timbered, albeit on an intimate scale, and the seven tables (the room seats 21) are sturdy and romantically shadowed. It's the perfect setting for a bottle of Chianti, a relaxed discussion of death and fate, and a rambling meal of Tuscan delights.

Chef/owner Greg Sweeting runs this minimalist operation with one server and one prep person/dishwasher. The three of them seem to like what they do; our waitress exuded a genuine enthusiasm for the menu and its possibilities, and Sweeting could be seen peering into the dining room now and then, as proud as any host overseeing a roomful of satisfied guests. Working several years ago in a restaurant in Tuscany, Sweeting "fell in love with the philosophy of handling food and the importance of mealtime. Tuscan food tends to be unpretentious and fresh; I'm trying to do that sort of thing here." He opened La Villa Poppi in April of 1997. "When I started out, the most expensive dish on the menu was lasagna for $7.95. Then I realized that that wasn't what I'd been working towards for the past 10 years of my life, and the restaurant started to evolve. Right now it's sort of a dichotomy: a trattoria in appearance, size, and level of formality and hominess, but in terms of wine and food it's moving towards a higher level. I'm interested in learning about wine and the passion of it and making food that's recognizable and good."

Anthony Pidgeon

Details

3234 22nd St. (between Mission and Bartlett), 642-5044. Open Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. No reservations or American Express accepted. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 49. Noise level: intimate

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He is succeeding. There are six items on the ever-changing menu and on the night we visited they were all good; most were superb. I know because we tried them all. We began with acqua cotta ($6.25), Tuscany's classic bread soup, a big, exponentially comforting bowl of onions, tomatoes, parsley, a hearty broth flavored with wine, shards of pecorino adding a spicy finish, and wonderfully soggy hunks of the staff of life. "Perfect on a chilly night," said a perpetually low-body-temp soup fan. "I could've just had that and a salad and been happy." Not with this menu grabbing your attention. First, the aforementioned salad ($4.25 half, $6.25 full), a mixture of baby greens, a nicely understated balsamic vinaigrette, and a garnish of vegetables subtly pickled to intensify their flavor and crispness. Next, calzone ($11.25). I've had better, lighter calzone crust, but the filling, a volcano of roasted sweet peppers, grilled eggplant, creamy-bland mozzarella, and rounds of sweet-hot sausage, was as hearty and rich as the cuisine we were celebrating.

The gnocchi in sage-infused butter sauce ($11) was the evening's only misstep. Too many of the (too large?) potato dumplings were heavy and doughy. But a wildly good baked salmon fillet ($14.95) provided a dazzling comeback. It was a perfectly moist example of fish-cooking savvy, this salmon was, nicely complemented with a sauce of lemon, butter, and fresh tarragon and a tasty if overly oily risotto studded with peas and sweet vine-ripened tomatoes.

The star of the evening, though, was a roasted, glazed duck ($14.95). "The duck is the way we did it in the restaurant in Tuscany," explained Sweeting. "It's seasoned with onion and garlic and fennel and roasted whole. It's actually a bastardization of that and another dish, a whole roast duckling that's cooked with vermouth. I use Vinsanto from Tuscany instead. And I like a little sweetness here and there, so I sprinkle it with honey at the end." But is it, in the end, Tuscan? "If the philosophy of cooking is Tuscan, the dish will be Tuscan." Crusty polenta and crisply glazed carrots supplied appropriate support to this noble bird.

The first of our two desserts was, of course, tiramisu ($6.25); it was creamy, with the right amount of substance -- a perfect balance. Eating it in big spoonfuls was like falling into an enormous pile of cool cushions after a long, hot afternoon. The second dessert, lemon ice ($6.25), was even better: not too sweet, not too tart, bracing and absolutely satisfying.

The decently priced, 21-item wine list (half are $21 to $26 per bottle; the most expensive is a Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino at $70) is almost completely Italian and red (there are four whites and two sparkling wines, a Ruggeri Prosecco di Valdobbiadene at $24 and a Monte Rossa Franciacorta Cabochon Brut at $56), with California represented by the Russian River's McIlroy ($6.95 per glass), a Syrah with a nice punch. But I couldn't resist the rarely encountered Pedavana beer ($3.50) with its crisp bite and body.

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