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Like Mamma Used to Make 

Viewing The Restaurant gets our critic hungry for old-fashioned red-sauce Italian

Wednesday, Aug 13 2003
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I love television. (I used to tell people, in all honesty, that I hadn't watched television before 1994. That got a laugh for maybe three years. Nowadays it would be more accurate to say that I haven't stopped watching television since 1994.) And I love restaurants. So it should come as no surprise that I've watched the first couple of episodes of NBC's summer "reality" -- well, it is produced by Mark "Survivor" Burnett -- series The Restaurant with intense interest.

I'm a big fan of Rocco DiSpirito's cooking -- that is, the gently Asian-fusioned French stuff that I've had at Union Pacific, the glamorous spot that made his reputation. (I guess his glamorous looks are part of that rep, too, since nearly every mention of him includes the intelligence that he was once named "one of People magazine's 'Sexiest Men Alive.'")

The Restaurant chronicles Rocco's adventures and misadventures as he struggles to open a namesake restaurant serving the Italian-American food he ate growing up in Queens, on an insane seven-week schedule. (Remember your own kitchen remodel? You're lucky if you get the appliances delivered in seven weeks, much less have the whole thing up and running and serving hundreds of diners by then.)

In Episode 2, disaster rules: Rented tables and chairs are barely delivered in time for the restaurant's "soft" (i.e., invited, nonpaying guests) opening; servers are clueless about the food (come on, guys, you've never heard of spaghetti aglio olio?); the second seating gets plastic glasses because the place has run out of clean wineglasses; and, just for the hell of it, there's a kitchen fire. But a cool breeze of competence sweeps through the kitchen when Rocco's mamma, Nicolina, arrives to take charge (you can almost hear Ennio Morricone's Man With No Name theme music underscoring the moment). The pint-size 78-year-old, a veteran of both deli and public-school cafeteria, dives into a huge pan of chopped veal, pork, and beef with two-fisted enthusiasm ("I worked hard all my life since I'm 6 years old; I don't need the gym"). And before you know it, dozens of plump meatballs are merrily bobbing around in a pan full of boiling olive oil.

I suddenly wanted a big, soothing plate of spaghetti with meatballs. And I knew where I was going to eat it, too: the Gold Mirror.

Months ago Lessley had told me, with a diffident air, that she had a favorite "old guy's restaurant," after reading about my affection for a couple of venerable San Francisco eateries. I thought I heard her say it was in the Tenderloin, and I envisioned a place something like Cole's P.E. Buffet in downtown Los Angeles, where you can enjoy a good French dip sandwich among a number of habitués who look as though they've been nursing a Bud since not too long after Cole's opened in 1908.

So it was a few weeks before I took her up on the idea for lunch, and we motored out to the Gold Mirror, which turned out not to be in the Tenderloin at all, but on Taraval, in the Sunset. Its swinging doors are set under a neon sign on the corner of 18th Avenue, and it took some time for my eyes to adjust to the dim light after we walked in. When they did, I saw something of a stage-set for "old-fashioned Italian restaurant," complete with a mural featuring gondolas on the back wall, wine racks on the side walls, plaster statues, and a long, welcoming bar. It's a timeless setting, but somehow it seems even older than it is; the Gold Mirror opened 34 years ago, in 1969.

My expectations were not high, especially after rather characterless starters (included in the price of our entrees) of the usual iceberg-lettuce salad and minestrone with slightly mushy vegetables and baby-soft pasta. But when the main courses came, I was pleasantly surprised. My chicken livers with onions and mushrooms were absolutely delicious, carefully sautéed so they were still rosy-centered and possessed of that lush, creamy texture that can be lost so easily. The rice alongside had been simmered in chicken broth until the grains were plump and pale gold. I cleaned my plate. Lessley's cannelloni were also quite good, the pasta fresh and supple, with a nice forcemeat stuffing, napped with a non-floury, lightly nutmegged béchamel. I was happy. Lessley was happy I was happy. I looked forward to eating there again.

Which isn't until some months later, when I think it will make a good, affordable, centrally located setting for a family reunion, seven of us coming from all over the Bay Area. It's a Saturday night; though the room was quiet at lunch, tonight every table is filled. My sister is running late, and I order two dozen escargot to tide us over until she arrives. The little beasts turn up, out of their shells, in a goopy, insufficiently garlicked, oddly gelatinous sauce. I wouldn't order them again, but they disappear nevertheless. Most of us order a la carte, but a couple ask for the full dinner (soup, salad, and a relish tray for $7 extra). The relish tray is, again, a pleasant surprise: good-quality salami and mortadella, provolone, hard-boiled eggs, radishes, spring onions, pepperoncini, (canned) olives (alas), and, the nicest touch, lightly pickled mushrooms and zucchini that taste as though they were fatto en casa. There's enough on the plates, ostensibly for two, for all of us to have a nosh.

The main courses are of varying success. The best are the delicate sautéed sweetbreads that my father orders; the bright, fresh-tasting, tomato-y chicken cacciatore, loaded with lots of thick strips of red bell pepper; and, surprisingly, big, fat, breaded "Louisiana" jumbo prawns, a dish seemingly out of place on this menu that I never would have ordered, but that turns out to be satisfyingly shrimpy. My mother is less than totally thrilled with her veal doré, which is simply panéed and fried slices of veal and artichokes, but when she describes what she expected ("I used to have it at Jack's"), I say, "Oh, Mom, that was chicken Jerusalem!" which yes, has artichokes, but in a wine and cream sauce. My brother's saltimbocca is rolled, which he finds odd (I've had it that way, as well as with the veal medallions simply layered with prosciutto and sage, which he'd have preferred). I'm more concerned that the strongest impression the dish leaves is one of salt. By accident (they weren't on the dinner menu, and I thought I was just inquiring if they were available), I end up ordering the chicken livers again. And, again, they are flawlessly cooked. I think I ordered the best thing on the menu the first time I was here. Dumb luck, and it colored my impression of the place, rather rosily -- that's why I dragged all of them here tonight. But my family, rather a demanding bunch, is not at all unhappy with their meals. The general consensus is that the cooking is genuine and sincere ("Better than it has to be," my father says), of its rather nostalgic and unfashionable Italian-American type.

The type that doesn't, for example, have espresso or cappuccino as an after-dinner option (though there are elaborate coffees with liqueurs and whipped cream available, made, alas, on a base of rather weak java). We enjoy all the rich desserts we try, especially the excellent cheesecake and the tiramisu, atypically topped with chocolate syrup. (It was my 2-year-old nephew's first tiramisu, and he judged it both "yummy" and "delicious.")

The day after I see them on TV, those meatballs send me to the Gold Mirror for a second lunch. I decide that the bas-relief of a stagecoach over the bar is an homage to Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach, with Anna Magnani at her Magnani-est, for no reason other than that I want it to be. Otherwise the stagecoach makes no more sense than the lighting fixtures, which combine carved plaster rosettes, waterfalls of beads, and wrought-iron chandeliers to somewhat confusing but oddly pleasing effect. Hiya points out that an enthusiastic patron has planted a lipstick kiss on the otherwise pristine bust of Julius Caesar adorning our corner. She is reminded, while enjoying her chicken parmigiana, of the famous Italian eating houses of Occidental: Negri's, the Union Hotel, and the sadly closed Fiori's, her family's favorite (mine, I say, was the Union Hotel), which serve multicourse, formulaic, but tasty meals to hungry hordes, often at communal tables.

When my spaghetti comes topped with one lone but enormous meatball, like a cherry on a sundae, my eyes slide over to a neighboring table, where I could swear another plate of the pasta came adorned with three meatballs (there are now two in evidence). Our waiter laughs and rushes off to the kitchen, returning with a little dish containing a meatball and sauce. The spaghetti, of course, is cooked well past al dente, but the meatballs (a combination of ground beef and pork) are just what I wanted -- comfort food.

I don't want to exaggerate the pleasures of the Gold Mirror: It is a restaurant of modest virtues, existing in a tiny time warp, in a food-obsessed city hungry for the shock of the new. But there are layers of restaurants that can coexist happily in the metropolis, and a little gentle archaeological dig can prove quite pleasant.

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Meredith Brody

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