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Robert and I had lunched on soup and sandwiches before attending an Italian wine tasting sponsored by the Slow Food organization. But the sandwiches were the generously sized banh mi sold at Saigon Sandwiches on Larkin, and the soup was a huge bowl of samusa dok at Burma Superstar on Clement, brimming with hunks of samusas and falafals. We'd tried to walk the meal off by browsing along Clement and taking a much brisker walk in the environs of Fort Mason, where the wine tasting was to be held, but we swore as we entered the place that we'd sample only the wine -- and judiciously.
San Francisco, CA 94123
Region: Marina/ Cow Hollow
Fried olives $3.95
Assorted cookies $3.50
Open Sunday through Tuesday from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Noise level: moderate
But that was before we discovered that the charcuterie had been trucked to the tasting by its creator, Paul Bertolli of Oliveto, and that next to the table groaning with hams, salami, and pâtés was another laden with beautiful Italian cheeses, including perfect, melting examples of robiola and brescianella. We broke down and sampled these delights. Sampled in ample quantities, in fact.
That was it for the day, we swore. But there was another display, close to the dessert and sparkling wines, covered with chocolates, tiny biscotti, and an assortment of cookies. The sweets were delicate looking, and I tried a few. One of them was so delicious, a ball of marzipan dusted in powdered sugar, encrusted with sliced almonds, and hiding a preserved cherry in its heart, that I couldn't resist popping a few more. I pointed the cookie out to Robert as my favorite, and he also fell prey to its charms.
So much so that, a couple of weeks later, we both agreed after an Italian dinner in North Beach that what we really wanted for dessert was more of those cookies. Robert obligingly drove over to the Marina, to their purveyor, Emporio Rulli Gran Caffé, the local branch of a famed bakery-cafe in Larkspur, but we were too late: The sign on the door read "Chiuso."
A few days later Robert called me, annoyed: He'd gone by the little Rulli, Il Caffé at Union Square on Stockton and Post streets, within walking distance of his work, and found that it didn't carry the cookies. This had become a quest. I suggested going to the Chestnut Street Gran Caffé for breakfast or lunch, but he declined -- breakfast was inconvenient, and he goes to the gym during lunch.
And so the matter stood; we'd reached an impasse. Until Robert rang again, this time with some excitement: He'd just found out that Rulli was now serving dinner. I think we went that very night. We were much taken with the large, airy room, with its long coffee bar, big mirrors, and shiny modernistic chrome tables and chairs, reminiscent of the art deco interiors in Bertolucci's The Conformist. The most striking element of Rulli's design is a painted ceiling mural, in lush pastels and gilt, from which hangs a dazzling chandelier.
We were handed a one-page menu, headed "Digustare," with a parade of about a dozen dishes listed single-file, starting with Zuppa di Giorno at $5.75 and ending with Cozza, mussels steamed with white wine, garlic, parsley, and chili, at $10.95. There were no divisions into starters, pastas, or main courses. We swiftly chose three dishes to start (tuna-filled Calabrian peppers, a plate of salumi, and fried oysters) and three more to follow (a risotto with mushrooms, roasted quail on chickpea purée, and penne Bolognese). When we ordered, Robert threw in a request for some fried olives.
There was a short list of Italian wines by the glass, but no other wine list. However, a corner of the restaurant, tucked away between the espresso bar and the pastry case, is lined with wine bottles, and Rulli adds a $10 corkage fee to the retail price of the wine at meals. Robert reported that most of the wines were big reds, rather overpowering for the food we'd chosen, but he found a nice, light Allegrini Valpolicella, priced at only $14, with the corkage a reasonable $24. (Still, the limited choice of wines and low corkage make this a tempting place to BYO.)
Our starters arrived before we'd gotten plates or silverware, and we stared at them longingly as the table settings appeared. The plump red peppers stood out brilliantly against their white plate, glistening with oil. Seven fried oysters swam on a lake of creamy golden aioli, sprinkled with minced, bright green chives. The salumi were less striking, though prettily arranged: four slices each of four different meats. And the fried olives waited patiently for us in a small white bowl.
When the utensils arrived, the feasting began. And I do mean feasting: We were astonished by the freshness, the crispness, the knowingness of the cooking. The peppers came filled with a spicy mixture made from the best Italian canned tuna, with fat capers tucked into their bases. The thin batter of the oysters shattered at the bite, and their aioli was bright with lemon. The olives, just as carefully battered and fried, were entrancing -- salty, juicy bites that set off the excellent charcuterie: a pale pink French-style ham of the first quality; a dryer, slightly spicy ham that we were told was the German-style Speck; some rosy prosciutto; and a delicious, paprika-dusted salami that we found, upon inquiry, came from Niman Ranch. We enjoyed them with slices of baguette and butter that had taken us only three requests to receive.
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