By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
When Phillipe called to say that he and Liz were up from L.A. for a few days, we immediately made a date for lunch. "It's funny," I said, "that we actually eat together more now than we did when we were living in the same town, because we're not running into each other at the movies all the time, so we have to seize the moment whenever we can." (I'd noticed the same phenomenon when I moved to New York: Friends whom I'd manage to see when I visited for a couple of weeks were unbookable for months when we could see each other any old time. There was always next week. I'm reminded of the New Yorker cartoon in which a man on the phone consults his appointment book. "How about never?" he says. "Does never work for you?")
I thought first of the two best new restaurants I'd eaten in recently, but both are dinner only, so I turned to the Places I Haven't Eaten in Yet list and weighed the options: seafood, Basque, Italian. Italian! I'd always admired the way Phillipe and Liz explore a different part of Italy every year, and I knew that A16, a new place in the Marina, was named for an Italian autoroute.
"Autostrada," Phillipe says, teasing me and conjuring the name of one of our favorite Fellini masterpieces, once we are ensconced snugly at a banquette table in the rear of the restaurant. The paved A16 traverses the lower third of the boot, originating in Naples; the eatery A16 features the cooking of Campania, a region less celebrated in the gastronomic imagination than Tuscany, say, or Emilia-Romagna (though you might have heard that pizza originated in Naples. Sort of).
San Francisco, CA 94123
Region: Marina/ Cow Hollow
Chestnut polenta $12
Trippa Napoletana $8
Top sirloin roast $18.50
Braised pork breast $17.50
Stuffed quail $16
Cheese plate $8 for three slices, $12 for six
Open for lunch Monday and Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.; and for brunch Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Tuesday
Parking: difficult (valet parking on weekends)
Noise level: quiet at lunch, noisy at dinner
When I first glance at the lunch menu we're handed, it's so concise, divided into three sections -- pizze, salads and zuppe, sweets -- that I think we must be missing a page. Where are the pastas and the grilled meats and the seafood I expected? But no, the presence of that third category, "sweets," indicates that we've got all that's on offer. When I ask if there are any daily specials, our waitress says "No" brightly: "The menu just changed today. It's all special!" I turn my attention back to the list, which seems even briefer when I notice that two of the seven dishes under "salads and zuppe" are a plate of olives and a green salad, and the rest sound like small plates (purée of dried fava beans with fennel salad, pecorino, and crostini) or starters (lentil and broccoli zuppa with pancetta and pepperoncini). We quickly decide to order a pizza and everything on the second list except the olives and the green salad (there are olives and "verdure" -- i.e., greenery -- coming on the antipasti plate, as well as on that fennel salad). I'm envisioning a rather meager meal, which surprises me because the room is noticeably grown-up and soigné, with especially attractive flooring, decorated with subtle but pleasing diamonds of color. And the wine list is impressive: seven pages long, heavy on the Italian selections, divided into regions, with sections devoted to Campanian varietals.
We choose, however, an unfamiliar Sicilian red, Cottanera Barbazzale, offered by the glass and the .375-liter carafe. We request the latter (it's lunch, after all), but our waitress brings us a bottle, which turns out to be a happy accident because our food starts arriving, and it's so dazzling, and everything goes so well with the wine, that we finish the whole thing easily. (In retrospect, though, we could have tried a different wine in a carafe -- the place offers nearly three dozen -- once we'd finished the first. I was especially intrigued by an unusual dry muscat from Basilicata, the region just south of Campania. So many wines, so little time.)
We start with the fava bean purée, warm and smooth, with a mildly nutty flavor that's a nice foil for the sparkling, crunchy, thinly sliced fennel salad with shavings of pecorino and the antipasti platter. No surprises there except that everything on it is first-rate: creamy burrata cheese oozing butter, milky small-curd ricotta, tangy house-marinated Cerignola and gaeta olives, nicely dressed chicory and frisée, and rosy collops of very good prosciutto. (Mild quibbles: Despite the excellence of the prosciutto, it's a bit disappointing when the description of the antipasti plate mentions "salumi" (could be salami, coppa, mortadella, any preserved meat), yet it arrives with exactly the same prosciutto offered as a $3 supplement with pizza or salad. Salumi, yes, but we expected something different. And it took us three requests to get a basket of bread, by which time the antipasti were virtually finished.)
Next comes the pizza, a cheeseless version called marinara, its nice crust faintly impregnated with the smoke of the wood-fired oven and topped with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce. It's accompanied by the lentil and broccoli zuppa, a rough-chopped, mildly spicy mash with thick cuts of pancetta -- even more pleasant. And then the two best dishes of the day: the delightful sformato, a delicious baked and unmolded custard of cheese, eggs, and surprising chunks of golden squash with a sharpish chicory salad, and a hearty hillock of wonderful, deeply flavored chestnut polenta covered with an even more hearty, homey ragu full of sausage and meatballs. Yum. Was I wrong about meager. We are getting enough to eat; I love the sformato so much that I suggest ordering a second one, and I greedily consider doing so even when Phillipe and Liz demur.