Filling the Buca

A young chef moves his six orphaned siblings across the country to be closer to fresh ingredients

The ubiquitous refrain, sung by chefs from the northernmost Napa vineyard to the shores of Santa Cruz (after "We're closed on Mondays"), is: "It's all about the ingredients." Perhaps no one understood this better than Giovanni Leoni, who owned and operated my favorite old-style North Beach Italian restaurant, Buca Giovanni (buca means "hole"), for nearly 20 years. While his dishes, by today's standards, might be considered heavy and gamey, he managed to please even finicky foodies by crafting everything by hand and culling the freshest herbs and vegetables -- many from his own ranch -- then letting the produce do the performing.

Leoni died a few years back, but his eponymous restaurant lived on, though till now a shell of its former self. Enter Vic Casanova, who, aside from earning a place in the Italian Chef Names Hall of Fame (right alongside Rocco DiSpirito), may finally do justice to Leoni's legacy.

While in style and menu preferences Casanova and Leoni would seem as far afield as their points of origin (Leoni grew up in northern Tuscany, Casanova in the South Bronx), when it comes to a passion for ingredients the two are blood brothers.

The new 27-year-old chef/owner has put everything on the line to come here, driven by a need to be as close to the fresh stuff as possible. Trained at the Institute of Culinary Education with stints at Manhattan's Beppe and Gramercy Tavern, Casanova has a story that reads like the gourmet version of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: His parents died within two years of each other, leaving the then-26-year-old to care for a family of seven -- the youngest only 12. Armed with a stockpot full of talent, a lotta chutzpah, and not much else, he drove across the country last January, bought Buca Giovanni (800 Greenwich, 776-7766) on April 28, and opened for dinner that night. Now with siblings in tow, he's hoping to turn a hard-luck tale into a rags-to-riches fable.

The fickle restaurant economy being what it is, his path hasn't been easy. Casanova's 22-year-old sister is his partner and general manager, another sister buses tables, his girlfriend is the maitre d', and he's training his sister's fiance to make pastries. Casanova jumps among roles as chef, pâtissier, buyer, businessman, reservationist, lighting and sound designer, conductor, and director. All that's missing are the cymbals between his knees.

Why take such a risk? One look at his menu and you understand. Casanova is the proverbial kid in the California candy store, experimenting with traditional dishes to make best use of what's available this minute. Dayboat scallops come seared with a salad of just-picked sweet corn and pea shoots; black cod fritters rest on a bed of fresh marjoram, roasted red peppers, and baby red potatoes. But it's in entrees like controfiletto di maiale al profumo di menta that he really makes the case for staying in San Francisco.

The dish begins with a 9-ounce pork chop (Niman Ranch, of course) stuffed with a chiffonade of fresh mint and black Mission figs, then seared, pan-roasted, and bathed in a sweet Madeira/veal stock/fig reduction sauce. Under the chop goes an eggplant caponata made with Spanish onions, pine nuts, currants, crushed red pepper, cocoa powder, thyme, and cinnamon, plus a touch of tomato sauce, balsamic vinegar, and mint; it's topped with mizuna greens tossed in olive oil. The effect is Italy by way of Morocco, with the currants and figs bringing out the sweetness of the chop, and the flavors lingering long and deep in a place that hasn't been touched since Leoni hung up his apron.

 
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