Bravo Italia

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

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?)

Looking out on Union Street from Capannina's chic, 
sleek setting.
James Sanders
Looking out on Union Street from Capannina's chic, sleek setting.

Location Info

Map

Capannina

1809 Union
San Francisco, CA 94123

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Marina/ Cow Hollow

Details

Corn soup with clams $8

Beef carpaccio $12

Risotto nero $14

Gnocchi alla caprese $16

Pollo al mattone $17

Cioppino $24

Cheese plate $11

409-8001

Open for dinner Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30. Closed Tuesday.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 41, 45

Noise level: moderate

1809 Union (at Octavia)

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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.

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