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By my reckoning, nothing less than an act of God could prevent Incanto from succeeding in Noe Valley. Granted, it's not hard to make such predictions when business is already booming. All the same, I doff my cap to owner Mark Pastore: The man had no restaurant experience whatsoever when he dropped a few hundred grand into a complete revamp of the old Speckmann's, yet he hit on a formula that has succeeded time and again at places like Sociale in Laurel Heights and Union Street's Merenda. The menu keeps a tight focus, the dishes are simple but well conceived, and the service is warm and professional. Figure in the wine list, a hefty document that could probably stop a javelin, and this already solid operation becomes a cork dork's dream come true.
San Francisco, CA 94131
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Roasted pepper and eggplant crostini $8.50
Sardines with salsa verde $10
Bucatini with petrale sole $13
Penne with arugula, cherry tomatoes, and pancetta $13
Pork scaloppine $18
Olive oil cake $5
Open for dinner Wednesday through Monday from 5 to 10 p.m. (wine bar open until 11 p.m.)
Parking: moderately difficult
Noise level: loud
On top of that, the new décor looks great. You'll probably be charmed (as I was) by the waiting area, where a sparkling display case filled with wine and food beckons and the tiled floor radiates like a sunburst. Faux stone columns and sheets of vellum covered with Latin verse separate a small wine bar from the main dining room. In the latter, a glass-enclosed wine cellar of rich, polished wood is one of many indications you've entered a temple to the grape. My only objection here is to the bare walls: They need something -- fabric, prints, a few strategically placed napkins -- to provide visual contrast and mute what can be a thunderous din. It's much quieter in the "Dante Room," a cozy alcove at the rear of the establishment that includes a framed microprint copy of The Divine Comedy, still more racks of wine bottles, and a mural done in striking shades of black, white, and gray.
If you dined at Incanto once a week for a year, ordering two bottles of wine per visit, you'd drop a hefty chunk of change, become a very good friend of sommelier Claudio Villani, and still have 60-plus bottles left to try. The list includes a whopping 167 vintages -- mostly Italian, at $20 to $400 a pop -- 27 by the glass, and a quartet of sampler-friendly flights. Not surprisingly, some customers take their oenology seriously (on the night my friends Rachel, Scott, and I visited, the party next to us brought three bottles and then ordered two more from the list; between glasses and decanters, they barely had room on their table for food). Fortunately, you don't have to be a high roller to drink well here. Our choice, a humble Dolcetto delle Langhe Monregalesi Il Colombo, was served in gorgeous, paper-thin stemware. A full-bodied red with hints of tobacco and ripe berry, the wine was a bit tannic at first, but softened wonderfully as it breathed.
Compared to the wine list, the brief menu may appear to be an afterthought. It's not. Done in a Cal-Italian style, dishes are seasoned with a gentle hand, allowing simple combinations of good, fresh ingredients to exceed the sum of their parts. Consider an appetizer of crostini: Golden toasts layered with roasted yellow peppers and eggplant were served over a barely dressed salad of peppery arugula and sweet, acidic cherry tomatoes. It doesn't take a master chef to assemble such fare, but the contrasts of texture and flavor were so superb that I couldn't imagine how the plate might be improved.
Having seen my share of culinary malpractice when it comes to beans (all too often grainy, undercooked things), I was enchanted by Incanto's white bean soup, in which each legume was plump and tender. Chunks of yellow tomato offered an occasional refreshing note, and a whiff of sage lingered in the background, like a subtle theme. An appetizer of Monterey sardines -- only two of them -- seemed pricey at $10, but the flavors were precisely calibrated. Oil-rich flesh slid easily from the bones, playing marvelously off dabs of piquant salsa verde and a bed of yet more flawlessly dressed greens, in this case frisée.
Like the rest of the dinner menu, Incanto's trio of pastas gets a slight tweak -- perhaps an ingredient or two altered -- every day. Some choices may seem too basic to qualify as restaurant fare, but the seasoning is flawless, the end result satisfying. You'll find no old-school Bolognese or cream sauces, but rather vibrant combinations such as penne tossed with arugula, cherry tomatoes, and pancetta, the latter bathing each toothsome tube with a lingering, meaty savor. Cordlike bucatini were served with delicate petrale sole, then sparked by the bright, timeless threesome of capers, parsley, and lemon.
Entrees at Incanto tend to be more ambitious than the pastas, and they don't always come together as well. Scaloppine of pork were juicy but needed more zip. We preferred the accompanying mélange of red corn, sweet gypsy peppers, and beet greens bathed with a sort of chili jus reminiscent of Nuevo Latino cuisine. Gulf Coast grouper, the star of our next entree, was bland and overcooked. However, the supporting cast almost saved the show: Chard and slender stalks of broccoli di ciccio were sautéed with a hint of vinegar and salty, bracing black olives.
I doubt I'll surprise anyone by saying that desserts at Incanto are simple and well executed. Choices include one of the most ubiquitous sweets in town -- the flourless chocolate torte. If you're going to offer such familiar items, you'd best do it well, and Incanto does. Dark, dense, and rich with cacao, the torte was finished with a dollop of whipped cream and a tart, fresh-tasting strawberry sauce. Olive oil cake isn't quite so common, but once you've tried this version -- a moist, luscious wedge of pastry served with a custardy zabaglione and plump raspberries -- you may wish it was. Like so many other dishes here, the cake achieved its full potential. All Pastore and company have to do is keep this up and they'll be charming diners for many moons.
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