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By Anna Roth
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This experience didn't feel quite so sinister. There were ideas behind the menu, though amberjack tartare with crème fraîche and seared scallops with chicories, Sichuan peppercorns, and ginger seemed unlike anything you'd find in Lombardia, Piemonte, Liguria, Tuscany, or the Amalfi Coast. Nor was I convinced by the equally unexpected addition of avocado to my fegato di vitello, seared calf's liver. I love avocado, I adore avocado, I like it in all manner of dishes, but if there is one food that isn't improved by avocado, it's liver. The rare liver and the slices of ripe avocado were too similar in texture and felt slimy instead of suave, and the elusive flavor of the avocado was lost amid the caramelized cipollini onions.
I was disappointed by our patate fritti al tartufi e grana padura, too; the menu said, "Just order it," and I did, without asking what it was. I'd expected something like tater tots, mashed potatoes infused with truffles and cheese -- maybe I'd thought "fritters" when I read "fritti" -- or even fried potato chunks, and got potato chips (house-made), sprinkled with chopped chives, chunks of cheese, truffle oil, and lots of salt. Fried potatoes, sure, and a nice nibble, though probably better with drinks than as a side dish.
San Francisco, CA 94105
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Pork ravioli $12.75
Potato chips with truffle oil $8.50
Mascarpone cheesecake $7
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and for dinner daily from 5 to 9 p.m.
Parking: valet $12 at lunch, $10 at dinner
Muni: 2, 7, 14, 21, 66, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N
Noise level: low to moderate
For dessert, we shared a refreshing parfait of chopped fruit (surprisingly unseasonable apples and pears) steeped in grappa and spooned over vanilla ice cream, a simple and satisfying assembly.
If I'd been dining as a civilian, I would have felt no impulse to return. Instead I showed up, a month or so later, with Ron for an impromptu light lunch. Try as I might to steer him toward something more interesting (a pressed confit of tuna sandwich, say, or halibut simmered in "crazy" tomato-caper sauce), Ron wanted the same damn pappardelle that Anna had had. Sometimes there's nothing you can do. He liked it, especially since his usual lunch is a sandwich. I was happier with my polpettone alla griglia -- Tonno Rosso's take on a hamburger, which is to say highly seasoned chopped steak, grilled rare and juicy and served on sturdy Italian bread -- than with anything I'd eaten at my earlier dinner. And we were served by a competent and swift waiter who called me "sweetheart." The feeling was mutual.
But a second dinner, with Lee on a Saturday night, was no more convincing than my first. Lee, a vegetarian, ordered two antipasti: a rerun of the chickpea pancake, which had lost its fillip of pickled ramps, and a fritto misto primavera, a decent mixed fry of spring vegetables (fennel, zucchini, and onions), served in a heap and sided by a little round dish of marinara sauce amped up with lemon peel. (I talked her out of the insalata tropicale, a singularly un-Italianate assortment of avocado, grapefruit, hearts of palm, celery, and corn.)
In hindsight I should have ordered seafood, and tonno rosso at that (seared tuna in a spicy red sauce), but I was in a meat mood -- maybe because I was with a vegetarian -- and so ignored both the bistecca alla fiorentina, at $29.75 the highest-priced main course by about $10, and the wood-grilled pork chop for another try at the lamb. It came, too rare, on a pile of favas mixed with undercooked slices of onion and largish chunks of pancetta, a tasty combination that somehow didn't go with the meat. Our side order of cauliflower with olives and garlic had stayed on the fire a bit too long.
For dessert I chose a parfait amaretto, described as drunken cherries with an amaretto mousse; it was a nice enough sweet, once I'd gotten over the fact that the cherries were distinctly undrunk and the mousse bereft of any whiff of the almond-flavored liqueur. The dish didn't need the three glassy shards of nut brittle stuck in it. Lee was luckier with her mascarpone cheesecake topped with a layer of lemony panna cotta and plump blueberries -- one of the few things I'd had here that could actually be called delicious.
Tonno Rosso is owned by the Real Restaurant group, 20-year veterans of the Bay Area dining scene whose current stable includes the dependable, even delightful Fog City Diner, Bix, and Tra Vigne (though the company has struggled recently, closing Gordon's House of Fine Eats and reimagining Verbena and BeauCoup). This new spot replaces Red Herring, and a cynic might think that the lease required Real to put in a restaurant, any restaurant, resulting in a place that feels careless, more half-baked than fully cooked.
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