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Bravo Italia 

An authentic restaurant that you'd be happy to find in Italy, much less on Union Street

Wednesday, Oct 5 2005
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Who knew, when Peter invited me to an evening of new chamber music performed by Earplay at the Herbst Theatre, that the second piece would be about vegetables? Certainly not Peter, who'd scored the tickets thanks to a family connection: His cousin was sitting in that night on percussion, and his cousin's wife was conducting the ensemble. I'd already been sent into a dreamlike state by the first piece, A Veil Barely Seen, by Frances White, in which soothing recorded sounds of water (babbling brooks, rushing rivers) were played over and under a viola, when we slid into Dream Vegetables, by Stephen M. Gryc, compositions inspired by a series of six poems about vegetables by Maggie Anderson. One was about yellow squash, "like shy bananas," another about cabbages with "too much head -- they do not use it wisely." Tomatoes, radishes, potatoes, corn -- Peter leaned over and whispered, "We should be going to a vegetarian restaurant, after."

Nice thought, but I was married to the idea of Capannina, a new Italian place on Union that I'd been longing to return to after an entirely successful meal there about a month and a half ago. The vegetable poems were recited by local icon Wesla Whitfield, whom I'd long wanted to hear sing -- it turned out she had a musical speaking voice, no surprise. The composer stood up after his piece ended to much applause, and, since he was seated directly behind us, I took advantage of the proximity to tell him how much I'd liked it. "But," I said, "I was waiting for asparagus!" "I was waiting for eggplant, myself," he said, cheerfully. Though I was enjoying the concert immensely, I was also delighted that it had started at 7 p.m., making a proper supper afterward a distinct possibility, though at an indistinct time. But the restaurant's management was entirely amenable when we called up after the concert and made an instant reservation.

I was as cheered to see Capannina's stylish, block-letter, bright red neon sign on this foggy evening, when Union was deserted, as I had been when we strolled up for our early dinner (6 p.m.) weeks before. That night, we'd approached it from the other direction, having found a parking space much more quickly than I'd anticipated, and had to kill time -- no, I hate that expression. Rather, we filled time by visiting some of the tempting shops that line the street. This night we didn't even bother to window-shop, rushing into the chic, sleek storefront, with pale green walls and a lovely free-form, blown-glass pendant light above, barely pausing to appreciate the soigné setting before being shown a window table for four. We slid in next to each other on the banquette and perused the two-page menu, dense with possibilities: 13 dishes listed under "Antipasti," eight pastas under "Primi," and 14 seafood, fowl, and meat items under "Secondi." (A bell rang in my head; not all, but much of the food looked the same -- even, to my surprise, the choices listed under the bargain $25, three-course prix fixe menu offered from 5 to 6 p.m. nightly -- but there was something different about the menu. When I got home and checked, I saw that the previous menu was headed "Gli Antipasti," "I Primi," and "I Secondi." Too Italian for Cow Hollow?)

I told Peter which dishes I'd already tasted, sighing a bit with pleasure at the memories evoked: "My father said, afterwards, that if we'd had this meal in Italy, we'd think the place was a real find." There was plenty more to choose from. Peter started with risotto nero con capesante alla Veneziana, a stunningly good, toothy risotto, cooked with black squid ink, topped with four expertly seared scallops, and surrounded by a drizzle of what the menu mistranslates, I think, as lobster bisque. (I'd expected an island of risotto poking up out of a sea of pink soup, but it was actually a lobster sauce.) The risotto tasted just-made, and its brininess rhymed perfectly with the lovely medium-rare scallops. I was even more enthralled with my zuppa del giorno, an equally lovely corn soup swirled with basil purée and studded with crunchy kernels, infinitesimal, translucent bits of celery, and plump clams. "Corn, enormous yellow dirigible of the August fields," I (probably misquoted) from Dream Vegetables. Both dishes were well-served by the Italian Gewürztraminer Peter chose from the wine list, a request that left our waiter nonplussed: "This is the first bottle of that wine anybody's ordered," he said, when he returned to the table with it. It was drier than most Gewürztraminers, and he agreed with us that it was a pleasant, easy-to-drink wine when Peter offered him a taste.

Peter had wanted the misto griglia de pesce, a seafood mixed grill with lemon-caper sauce, but the kitchen had run out of it, so he switched to the cioppino d'aragosta alla Genovese, and I was happy he did: It was an enormous pile of seafood, chunks of tuna, halibut, and bass, and clams and mussels in the shell, topped with a small half-lobster, in a fresh-tasting tomato-y broth enriched with the same lobster stock they used for the risotto's lobster sauce. The mussels were large and creamy, the clams small and sweet, and everything was perfectly cooked (well, "The tuna is a little overdone," Peter said). "It's like a deconstructed cioppino," he added, surmising that the seafood was carefully added to the broth à la minute, in order of cooking time, so that the various ingredients would arrive at table just-cooked instead of overcooked, the fate of many fish stews.

I considered the coniglio alla cacciatore (rabbit roasted with white wine and vegetables), the pan-roasted veal chop with white polenta (which did give me a bit of sticker shock, topping the menu at $32), and almost went for the short ribs braised in barolo with mashed potatoes. But I felt like something simple and light, and opted for the scallopine al limone, classic veal scallopine (four dainty, pounded-thin scallops of the pale meat) topped with a lemony wine sauce dotted with capers, with delicate yet sophisticated accompaniments: a pure-white risotto enriched with Parmesan and dusted with chopped parsley, and, hiding under the veal and seemingly barely cooked by the heat of the meat, spinach Florentine. Capannina's version had the tiniest baby leaves, with pine nuts, honey-tasting golden raisins, and a bit of slivered onion. I wanted more!

Peter was mildly disappointed by the rather unimaginative assortment of sorbets and gelatos he received (chocolate, vanilla, and hazelnut), though they were prettily served in lacy cups made of tuile cookies. But I adored the lavish cheese assortment, all Italian, all ripe and delicious: a pungent, runny Robiola, mildly goaty Capretta, velvety Blu del Moncenisio, nutty pecorino Lucano, and creamy, young Scimudin, accompanied by shavings from a supple nut brittle and slices of crisp green apple; altogether one of the best cheese plates imaginable.

This was just as good a meal as the dinner I'd had with my parents and our friend David. I think my father was the most pleased with his unusually tasty carpaccio de manzo -- the classic, raw, thin-sliced beef topped with peppery arugula leaves and slivers of aged parmigiano, showered with cracked black pepper -- and, again, an unusually juicy and succulent version of pollo al mattone, the classic Tuscan dish of a splayed half-chicken cooked under a brick, served with nicely bitter broccoli rabe. My mother surprised me by ignoring the crab cake with saffron sauce in favor of the lobster and crabmeat ravioli, and further surprised me by not liking the dish very much. (It certainly wasn't as stellar as the two pasta dishes the four of us shared in between our antipasti and secondi: fat house-made pappardelle with a wild -- but mild and sweet in flavor -- boar ragu with slivered artichokes, and silky gnocchi topped with chopped tomato, basil, and diced buffalo mozzarella, i.e., caprese.)

She was attracted by one of the offerings on the $25 prix fixe, a lamb stew with pancetta and polenta. Several people who'd sat near us at 6 p.m. had gone straight for this bargain menu, which offered the soup of the day or two salads (organic greens with tomato and pecorino, and baby spinach with a fried oyster); followed by salmon with fregola; bow tie pasta with meat ragu and spring vegetables; chicken paillard on a bed of arugula, asparagus, and artichokes, or the lamb; and then your choice of the dessert menu. Our server checked with the kitchen: There was one portion of lamb stew left that we could order a la carte. The homey dish turned out to be my favorite of everything we had that night, even more than my own beautiful plate of tender, falling-off-the-bone veal osso buco in a pearly sauce full of spring vegetables (yes, in August!) atop soft polenta, after a wonderful salad featuring a roasted peach wrapped in pancetta set off against spicy arugula and sharp, aged ricotta. David's gently roasted Alaskan halibut, on Sicilian couscous, with bell peppers and clams, followed what was a close second for favorite dish, that day's soup, David's starter: the sonorously named zuppa de lenticche con gamberi e fegato d'oca, and nicknamed "surf 'n' turf" in translation. It was a purée of green lentils with whole lentils, enriched (literally) with prawns and foie gras, subtle and exciting. I've had two of the best soups in recent memory here. But everything exhibited the same care, in conception and, especially, execution: I'm seduced by the kitchen's philosophy.

For dessert, I speared bits of cheese from my dad's excellent assortment, and also scored one of my mom's cream-filled profiteroles, served with both chocolate and caramel warm dipping sauce. This was a divine dinner. I asked our server what "Capannina" means. "The owner was raised in Capri," he said, "and he grew up next door to a five-star restaurant called Capannina, which could mean different things: a hat, a shelter. But he wanted, always, to have a wonderful restaurant." Well, he does.

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Meredith Brody

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