By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
I thought I knew where we were going to have dinner after I met friends at the opening for Michael Tompkins' show at Paul Thiebaud on Columbus. Da Flora, a Venetian osteria and one of my favorite places, is nearly catty-corner to the gallery, and I knew Peter, Anita, and Robert had never eaten there. Tompkins' meticulously painted, meticulously arranged still lifes often contain packaging familiar from the larder, and a pasta box glimpsed here or there added to my hunger. I yearned for the sweet potato gnocchi sauced with cream and bacon and the duck livers with caramelized onions and pancetta in a brandy-sage sauce that I was sure I'd soon be feasting on, even as I greedily stared at the seductive paintings.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Insalata d'aranci e finocchi $7.50
Zucchini tartufate $7.75
Gnocchi alla ricotta $11.75
Salsiccia con broccoletti $13.75
Rolatini al fattore $15.25
Ristorante Ideale, 1309 Grant (at Vallejo), 391-4129. Open for dinner Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 12, 15, 30, 41, 45. Noise level: moderate to high.
Ristorante Umbria, 198 Second St. (at Howard), 546-6985. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Parking: difficult during the day, easier at night. Muni: 10, 15, 76. Noise level: moderate to high.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make hungry. We found out when we crossed the street that Da Flora was closed for a private party -- indeed, one arranged by Thiebaud for the artist. No fools they, with a charming restaurant so close by.
We were thrown back on our own devices. It was a Tuesday night, and Tuesday seems to be the new Monday. My favorite place in the touristic Italianate hell of Columbus, where the restaurant barkers seem even more determined than those standing in front of the strip clubs, is the tiny, eccentric L'Osteria del Forno, which gleams like a genuine pearl somehow strung on a rope of plastic Mardi Gras beads: closed Tuesday. I thought of Café Jacqueline, the soufflé haven tucked away on Grant: closed Tuesday. (And Monday, too.) But trudging past it ignited memories of a fervent recommendation of another restaurant, farther up the street. As we headed there, hungry and beginning to get cranky, we passed Ristorante Ideale, and Robert, who'd lived in Rome for several years, mentioned how genuine he'd found it. (I was mildly put off because it had its own barker, though one who was considerably less relentless than those a block away.)
When the fervently recommended place proved totally booked, we turned around wordlessly and returned to Ideale. Which proved ideal for our purposes: We were immediately led to a nice table in the second of two pleasant if not particularly memorable dining rooms. We shared four starters, three of which were very tasty indeed: insalata d'aranci e finocchi, a sparkling salad of fresh shaved fennel with orange segments, walnuts, capers, and crumbled gorgonzola in a brisk champagne vinaigrette; zucchini tartifate, an unusual salad of julienned zucchini, musky with truffle oil and Parmigiano, with a couple of crostini smeared with a tapenadelike truffle pâté; and the best of the bunch, grilled calamari, almost but not quite charred, good and smoky. The least interesting was the caprese. Robert had said we shouldn't get it -- it wasn't tomato season -- and yet somehow it was ordered. I would have gone for the prosciutto and pears with mascarpone or the crostini topped with melted mozzarella and anchovies. But the caprese came, and the mozzarella was a little too firm, as were the tomatoes. But what did it matter, when the other dishes were so satisfying? As was the thin white wine, Falanghina, an unusual varietal rarely seen on American wine lists, and the house-baked bread, perfect for sopping up assorted oils and juices.
Ideale makes its own pastas, too, and three of us felt like pasta that night. The ricotta gnocchi were superb, elastic and light, in not too much of a dark, beefy ragu (you can also have them with tomato sauce and basil) -- probably my favorite dish on the table. The bucatini (tubular spaghetti) all'amatriciana was classic, with homemade pancetta flavoring its fresh tomato sauce. The only surprising thing about the plate of salsiccia con broccoletti (sausage with garlicky broccoli rabe and polenta) was the generous serving of rough, porky sausage, much bigger than you'd get in a Roman trattoria, but equally well flavored. Again, only one dish disappointed, and it was in the execution, not the ingredients: I wanted spaghetti carbonara that night, and a little too long in the pan had broken the rich cheese-and-egg sauce, scrambling the eggs instead of emulsifying them.
Two courses each, and we were replete, not even tempted by the tiramisu voted best in S.F. by this publication a few years ago. (Only a little bowl of fresh fruit salad splashed with maraschino liqueur, available in every trattoria in Italy but seemingly unknown here, would have made my pleasure complete.) I was not surprised to read that chef Maurizio Bruschi comes from four generations of Roman chefs; his grandmother and teacher, La Nonna Serafina, would have been proud of him that night.
My next Viaggio en Italiawas again prompted by proximity. I'd recently discovered the amazing, free film noir screenings downtown sponsored by the Danger & Despair Knitting Circle on Thursday nights (www.noirfilm.com). When I invited one of the programmers, Marc Dolezal, aka Dark Marc, to dinner before seeing two obscure Poverty Row noirs set in San Francisco, The Treasure of Monte Cristo and No Escape, he suggested Umbria, not only because it was steps away from where the screening would be held, but also because he likes the place.
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