Like Mamma Used to Make

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

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.)

Stage Set: Gold Mirror's timeless 
setting looks like the quintessential 
Italian restaurant.
Anthony Pidgeon
Stage Set: Gold Mirror's timeless setting looks like the quintessential Italian restaurant.

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Sautéed chicken livers $11 at lunch, $14 at dinner

Cannelloni $11 at lunch

Spaghetti and meatballs $11 at lunch

Chicken cacciatore $14

Sautéed sweetbreads $18

"Louisiana" jumbo prawns $17

Cheesecake $4

564-0401

Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 10:30 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: easy

Muni: 28, L

Noise level: low at lunch, high at dinner

800 Taraval (at 18th Avenue)

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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.

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