La Dolce Vita

Handsome waiters, cheesy Euro disco, tasty gnocchi -- Pazzia takes us back to Tuscany

The problem with experiencing the food of another country inthat country is that you come back with expectations. Floating around your taste memory is a transcendent loaf of Kümmelbrot and hunk of Butterkäse that you bought at the German train station, the mouthwatering scent that lured you into the paninoteca in Stresa for a slice of focaccia with green olives that was not of this world.

Then you come home and wander the town, desperately trying to re-create that taste -- and not just the taste, but the aroma, the colors, the style, the atmosphere. But everywhere you go, everything has the stamp of America on it: enriched, presliced rye bread masquerading as Kümmelbrot; trattorias that serve nothing but deep-dish pizza; waiters who pronounce bruschetta "brooshetta."

Never have I felt this more acutely than after I returned from Tuscany a few years ago -- still woozy from the recollection of a hole-in-the-wall (literally) enoteca in Cortona, where we sipped wine and ate piles of hand-rolled pici until our sides ached.

Lord knows there are more wonderful Italian restaurants in San Francisco than you can shake a pasta fork at. But after this trip, I found frustratingly few that triggered memories of meals I had had in Italy. So when, after months of fruitless searching, I wandered into Pazzia (337 Third St., 512-1693), an unassuming place with butter-yellow walls and little else, in a decidedly institutional locale near Moscone Center, it came as a surprise to find myself smack in the middle of Tuscany once again.

And it wasn't just a sublime dish of house-made ravioli with fresh porcini cream sauce that took me back (although that helped). It was the sound of rapid Italian coming from the kitchen and from various tables, and the dark, handsome, cologned Italian waiters who look at you the way only dark, handsome, cologned Italian men can. It was the handwritten daily specials menu, and the instantaneous arrival of Parmesan and grater after the delivery of every pasta dish. Even the constant ring of cell phones and the sound of cheesy European disco music worked to create an atmosphere that felt authentic.

Credit goes in great part to owners (and Florence natives) Marco Sassone and Massimo Ballerini (whose family also owns I Ghibellini, a well-regarded restaurant in Florence), who cultivate an ambience that doesn't pander extensively to American habits.

I now return to Pazzia every time I want to kick-start my memory, or when I'm craving a perfect plate of comforting gnocchi, a deceptively simple dish few restaurants seem to get exactly right. On my most recent visit, house-made spinach gnocchi with ragu (meat sauce) arrived at my table piping hot from the pasta pot -- essential to good dumplings, which get dense and doughy if left sitting out. Right behind my waiter was another server holding a bowl with freshly grated Parmesan, which he sprinkled liberally over my plate, barely waiting for a nod of approval. The irregularly shaped potato pillows were light and fluffy, but just toothsome and sizable enough to be satisfying; an addition of light cream to the sauce was a nice variation on traditional ragu, balancing the tartness of the tomatoes without overloading it. With each forkful of gnocchi came nice chewy bits of finely chopped carrots, celery, onion, and ground beef.

I ate slowly, savoring the flavors and reminiscing about an afternoon in Montepulciano, and in true Italian style, no one cut short my reverie with "Are you finished?" even when there were only two dumplings left on my plate, and even though an agitated lunch crowd was forming at the door. Buon gusto.

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