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Artful Italian 

Personal and interesting regional cooking (and wine) on Belden Place

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
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The second Peter, Anita, and I ran into Robert in the lobby of 49 Geary on "First Thursday" -- the monthly late-opening night for numerous downtown art galleries -- I asked him if he'd like to join us afterward for dinner at Brindisi Cucina de Mare. "No," he said curtly. "Gail has probably started dinner at home already." I was kind of shocked: Robert, who lived in Rome for a couple of years and is an aficionado of Italian wines (and never fails to remind me that, during a Tuesday-night phone discussion of A16's virtues, I spontaneously invited him to dinner there, and we rushed over to discover that it was, yes, closed on Tuesdays), seems to me perfectly capable of eating two dinners in one night. But I left it at that. "First Thursday," with all of its tromping up and down staircases and trying to absorb a lot of different kinds of art, is pretty grueling, and I didn't have enough energy to argue with him. The quality of the work is always variable enough that I wasn't swooning with Stendhal syndrome -- the Irving Penn show of gum and cigarette butts called "Underfoot" at the Fraenkel Gallery was a disappointment (the prints looked murky, especially when compared with the vintage Penn prints on display there), but I loved Michael Wolf's sleek, monumental, almost science-fiction-y photographs of Hong Kong high-rises at the Robert Koch Gallery in the same building, and enjoyed stumbling across a charming, small James Weeks culinary still life in the George Krevsky Gallery nearby.

But by the time we ran into Robert again, across the street at the Gallery Paule Anglim's show of works by Jess, the Berkeley artist who prefigured pop art with his witty collages, he was sufficiently weakened -- by either the effect of the art or possibly a couple of glasses of domestic chardonnay -- to allow as how he'd accompany us to Brindisi for appetizers.

Brindisi holds down the northern end of restaurant-choked Belden Place, and it's been nicely chic'd up since the departure of the last occupant, a Cajun-Creole spot with rickety tables and chairs. There's a snug bar tucked against the Pine Street windows, and we were led past it to a nice table for four at a banquette with an alcove feeling, not far from the partially screened, amazingly tiny upstairs open kitchen. (There's another prep place, I've been told, downstairs.)

The restaurant features a number of interesting things on its big two-page menu, with 10 appetizers, nine dishes that could be starters or entrees (listed under "vegetarian courses"), and, under main courses, four meat items and 17 seafood ones. (Brindisi is named for the seaside town in Puglia, in the southeast region of Italy.) Robert was instantly beguiled by the wine list: He proclaimed it "exceptionally good, with unusual wines I don't know, good ones I do, and virtually none of the usual Italian suspects that I don't like." He offered not only to choose the wines, but also to pay for them, a generous offer I accepted, knowing he'd order much more than I would have.

We started with expertly fried calamari, chosen when the fried smelts we wanted weren't available; crunchy little potato croquettes freshened with mint; and a sturdy dull-green tortino, a cake made of potato and artichokes with salt cod, drizzled with bright-green parsley oil, a sharp foil for the salty and appetizing dish. Even better was the beautiful plate of octopus carpaccio, the translucent, chewy, briny slices sparked with arugula and black olives. But I was completely taken by my huge bowl of acqua povera, ironically named in this instance, because the "poor water" was full of rapini, white beans, brilliant green peas, and chunks of fried bread. I didn't want to eat it all because I needed some appetite for what was to follow, but I couldn't stop myself. Robert was more pleased with the unusual rosé we started with, a Conti Zecca Negramaro, than I was; what I thought was ever-so-slight corkiness he termed "earthy." But we were all delighted by our first course: This was the best food we'd shared in some time.

Soon a delightful white wine appeared, the Maculan Pino & Toi, which Robert reminded me I'd loved at Pesce. (By this time I realized that Robert was sticking around.) The four of us had all ordered pasta or risotto; three of our choices arrived first, followed fairly swiftly by Peter's boiling hot, obviously just-cooked tagliolini neri, thin strands of homemade black-ink pasta heaped with chunks of white cuttlefish and pink tiger prawns in tomato broth. The other three dishes were of varying temperatures, ranging from my seafood risotto (hot in the heaped-up center, cooler around the edges) to Robert's orecchiette, an appealing pile of homemade pasta "ears" sauced with bread crumbs, anchovies, garlic, and rapini, which was barely warm. We thought they had probably been held until the tagliolini were ready, and asked our server if something could be done about the orecchiette, which with its bread-crumb coating is difficult to heat up. He was reluctant to admit that there was anything wrong ("A dry sauce cools down the pasta," he said), but we'd all had versions served at the proper temperature, so he took it away and returned with it somewhat warmer.

Even without the temperature problems, we were less enthralled with these dishes than we had been with our starters. They were quite good (especially the sophisticated black-ink tagliolini, a subtle contrast to its fish and broth), but not as refreshingly surprising. The gnocchi, made with black olives as well as potato, were sturdy and sauced with the same cuttlefish and prawns as the tagliolini. The orecchiette, a recipe proudly attributed to chef Fabrizio's mamma, was also sturdy -- it would have been my favorite if it had reached the table hot. Robert added a third wine to our feast (by this time the sommelier was treating us with great respect), a big, fruity Cantalupi red from Conti Zecca, the producer of the rosé we'd started with.

I was able to sip both red and white, to compare and contrast them with the terrific Italian cheese plate we finished with, nice cuts of cheeses both hard and soft, familiar and un-: fiorito, caciocavallo, quadrotto, and pecorino luciano, an interesting assortment improved by its accompaniments of sliced apple, dried figs, and especially an amazing, grainy Sicilian orange-flower honey that proved irresistible whether you dragged a bit of cheese or a greedy finger through it. We also loved the exceptionally creamy panna cotta, served with a superfluous (at least for me) strawberry sauce.

It had been a meal that reached great heights at its beginning and end, with only a slight slump in the middle (and thanks, Robert, for the wines, which cost $20 more than the food). I was eager to return, which I did a few weeks later with my parents.

Mystically, we were led to the same cozy table and served by Renzo, the same excellent waiter -- and had an even better meal. We started with a simple crab salad, prepared "Leuca style," which meant lots of fresh Dungeness crab, shreds and lumps, piled on a bed of frisée and arugula slicked with a lemony vinaigrette; a good lentil soup topped with a bit of pesto; and (I was lucky again in my choice) a soupy risotto full of thick slices of buttery cremini mushrooms. (My father, not overly fond of rice -- which continually surprises me -- said that this risotto had won him over.)

Oddly, in a place with the menu heavily weighted toward fish, I liked our meat dishes better than the seafood we'd ordered, pan-seared prosciutto-wrapped scallops served with creamy leeks. (I'd chosen the scallops over the simpler seared wild salmon with lemon-caper sauce and the seared halibut with braised fennel and cherry tomatoes. Plates of each -- the halibut was especially pretty, white flesh set off by green and red veg -- were being consumed with audible appreciation at the table for two next to us. I yearned for them; the scallops were a bit dull.) My father's grilled flat iron steak with an arugula and mushroom salad was straightforward, chewy, and satisfying, and my mother's stew of chunks of lamb shoulder, baby artichoke hearts, and Yukon Gold potatoes was the best main course I'd had in two visits. (Without Robert to treat us, we stuck to the wines-by-the-glass list, which yielded a lovely Sardinian Vermentino, a Tuscan Chianti, and a Venetian Prosecco.)

Although there were biscotti, profiteroles, a crème caramel, and a chocolate torte on the menu, the lure of the cheese plate and the panna cotta was too strong to resist. The cheeses were slightly different this time (we especially enjoyed a suave pressed ricotta, divine with the honey), and the perfect panna cotta elicited raves from my mother, a connoisseur of the cooked-cream sweet. Even without any gallery-hopping, we'd had an extremely artful evening.

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Meredith Brody

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