By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
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By Max A. Cherney
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By Alex Hochman
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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.
San Francisco, CA 94104
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30. Closed Sunday
Muni: 2, 3, 4, 15
Noise level: moderate to high
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.
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