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
San Francisco's reputation as a great eating town dates back to the Gold Rush, when miners dizzy with gold dust flocked to such places as the Poulet d'Or (quickly corrupted into the Poodle Dog) to gorge on fancy foreign fare. Floods of immigrants migrated here, from both East and West, and opened restaurants featuring the cooking of their native lands. The oldest S.F. restaurant guidebook in my collection is Bohemian San Francisco, by Clarence E. Edwords, a beautiful little volume published by Paul Elder (whose eponymous downtown bookshop survived into my childhood) in 1914.
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Edwords writes of one of his favorite parts of the city, the area "around the base of Telegraph Hill, and extending over towards North Beach," the first part rebuilt after the great fire: Here are "congregated Italians, French, Portuguese, and Mexicans, each in a distinct colony, and each maintaining the life, manners, and customs ... of the parent countries. Here are stores, markets, fish and vegetable stalls, bakeries, paste factories, sausage factories, cheese factories, wine presses, tortilla bakeries, hotels, pensions, and restaurants; each distinctive and full of foreign life and animation."
I took down this volume and a few more from the bookshelf after my dinners at Repastoria Satyricon, a new Italian restaurant in the Castro, several miles from the neighborhood that Edwords described. The place is lined with wonderful old black-and-white photographs of several of the sadly vanished San Francisco eateries, including the Blue Fox, Vanessi's, and Finocchio's. On its Web site, Satyricon declares its intention of paying homage to these bygone landmarks "in style and attitude."
Eating Around San Francisco by Ruth Thompson and Chef Louis Hanges (from 1937) describes the Blue Fox as French (despite its three Italian owners), with a specialty of frog's legs à la poulette, and Vanessi's, "a new place in San Francisco," with a menu featuring minestrone and chicken à la cacciatora. By the time of Doris Muscatine's 1963 A Cook's Tour of San Francisco, the alluring dishes of the Blue Fox, listed under "elegant" rather than Italian, are very Italian, including the vitello tonnato that my father tells me was his favorite dish there.
I never dined at either the Blue Fox (an expensive fine-dining place that was a favorite of my parents) or Finocchio's (which was more of a cabaret featuring drag acts than a restaurant per se), but I miss Vanessi's to this day, especially the unpretentious counter room, with the big grill behind it, where white-suited cooks deftly manipulated sauté pans over theatrical high flames. Repastoria Satyricon has a style and attitude all its own, located somewhere between the plush Blue Fox and the more utilitarian Vanessi's. It's a wide, warm storefront room, beautifully lit, with a long upholstered banquette down one gold-painted wall, the other wall boasting a bar and an open kitchen, whose occasional displays of leaping flames reminded me of the flashy cooking of Vanessi's grill guys.
I loved the facade of Satyricon, with golden, welcoming light spilling out through wood-framed windows. I especially liked the sign hanging outside: "Osso Buco Tonight!" And I was pleased to be led immediately to a comfy table for three in the back of the room, opposite the kitchen, even though I arrived before my friends did (none of that waiting for everyone in your party to arrive, which I understand in theory, but which makes me tired in practice). I got a chance to admire the vintage tin-paneled walls and ceilings and to check out some of the photos of high-hatted chefs before Isaac and Terrell arrived, a few minutes later. We mused a little about the name; didn't Trimalchio's banquet in Petronius' Satyricon feature a whole roasted animal, from which live birds flew when it was sliced into?
There was nothing as baroque to be found on the two-page menu. It began with five antipasti, which I felt was rather a lofty title for three salads, a zuppa della sera, and a dish of Swiss chard sautéed with garlic, raisins, and pine nuts, but I was instantly seduced by the fact that the five pastas and risottos listed were available in full or half portions. (The restaurant also offered to sauce any of its pastas -- that night, maccherone, squid ink taglierini, gnocchi, and pappardelle -- with any of three vegetarian sauces, pomodoro, melanzane arrosto, and salsa verdi, as entrees.)
We began by sharing the insalata di finocchio con sedano, a bright, simple salad of shaved fennel, celery hearts, radishes, and diced red onions, in a walnut vinaigrette, surrounded by plump blackberries, which Isaac found superfluous, but Terrell and I enjoyed as an extra fruity accent.
The remains of the salad stayed on the table, to be speared as a bit of crunch between mouthfuls of our pasta course: taglierini con cape sante, fresh dark squid ink pasta with sautéed dayboat scallops in a lightly truffle-scented beurre blanc; gnocchi con ragu di coniglio, potato gnocchi that seemed to me rather more sturdy than delicate (as described), but with a good elastic texture complemented by tarragon-scented rabbit and tomato sauce; and my favorite of the three, the risi bisi ("rice and peas") that I'd ordered, an entirely satisfying plate of lightly Parmesaned, slightly toothy, snowy white risotto dressed up with snippets of prosciutto and the air-dried beef called bresaola as well as the green peas of the traditional recipe.
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