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Time to Eat 

Lingering over several courses at Zuppa feels like a vacation in Italy

Wednesday, Nov 23 2005
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A few weeks ago I realized a dream of long standing: I attended the festival devoted to silent films in Pordenone, Italy, called Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. I felt a trifle ashamed when I told people about my plans before I went. "It's not an eating trip," I'd explain carefully, mindful of the experience I've had during other film festivals, when my food intake becomes sketchy, a matter of fuel, not fetish. I wasn't even clear on where Pordenone was: "Outside of Venice," was all I could say, and though I've eaten well in the Veneto, it's far from the best region in which to dine in Italy.

As it turned out, thanks to the practicality and gourmandise of both the festival's organizers (whose schedule contained meal breaks) and my friend Lee, a Le Giornate veteran who knew well the restaurants of Sacile, a picturesque town about 14 kilometers away where most of the screenings were held, I managed to have one good little meal a day. I say "little" because time constraints rarely allowed us to have more than two courses. It was mildly painful not to follow the classic antipasti, primi (usually a pasta), secondi (what we think of as an entree or main course), dolce routine, but in practice I found the portions of the first two courses so large that three savory courses would have been an impossibility. (Secondi, in the ristorantes, pizzerias, and trattorias we frequented, were much smaller in portion than we expect in the U.S.) It was cruelly painful not to drink at these meals, especially when we were offered local Prosecco at 1.50 or 2 euros a glass. But I didn't fly 6,000 miles to doze drunkenly through the masterpieces of French director Andre Antoine or the cream of Japanese silent cinema.

Our first lunch, in an unprepossessing ristorante whose menu was largely devoted to pizza in numberless combinations, featured an amazingly generous plate of local salumi (at 4.50 euros), followed by a very good carbonara and a wild mushroom and artichoke pizza. At subsequent meals during the week, I savored big polpette (meatballs) with a contorni (vegetable side) of fresh peas cooked with prosciutto and onions; homemade linguini vongole with tiny fresh clams; simply grilled steak, sliced and served on a bed of peppery arugula; tagliatelle with local mushrooms; vividly lamb-y grilled lamb chops; thin but wildly flavorful slices of braised beef, served with a couple of intensely potato-y boiled potatoes; and the best seafood risotto I have ever had in my life. Perhaps my happiest food memory is of walking through Sacile's Thursday-morning outdoor market while breakfasting on a huge grilled pork rib (2 euros), holding a bagged roasted chicken (4 euros) purchased at the same stand and awaiting an alfresco lunch a few hours hence.

When I returned to San Francisco, I knew I would also return to Zuppa, a new Southern Italian place tucked away in a quiet alley near the ballpark. Before I left town, I'd had a single lunch there, during which I admired the soaring industrial space more than the not very distinctive panini, pizza, and pasta three of us had shared at a simple wooden table. As a result, I wasn't overly excited about going back for dinner. I was a little early, and so was directed to a perch in a small bar in the back of the room, from which I eyed a beautiful bright-red meat slicer, given pride of place behind the counter of the open kitchen (which also features a grill and a wood-burning oven), while sipping a glass of Prosecco.

When Matt, April, and I declined to sit at a corner of the big family table, we were led to a deuce, the table nearest the glass door to the outside, which let in a blast of cool air every time it opened; I found it refreshing in the steamy room, but it could have proven annoying on a colder night. When I asked our server if the striking slicer was a vintage model, she said it wasn't: "It's a new Tamagnini, and there's a seven-year wait list for it." I urged my friends to overorder -- it was bliss to be confronted with a multicourse menu with nothing but time ahead of us. We decided to put the Tamagnini to the test and order the grandioso assortment of the affettati (cured meats), nearly translucent slices of best-quality prosciutto, Milanese salami, speck, coppa, and mortadella studded with pistachios, neatly draped on a big wooden cutting board. (You can also order a single meat, or choose three.)

The fatty, salty, smoky meats were a lovely way to start the meal, and were nicely succeeded by a crisp pizza topped with little clams in the shell and bright, sharp wild garlic. We then went on to two shared pastas. The trenne con crema de cavolfiore was an unusual and marvelous dish of homemade short tubular pasta in a rich, creamy cauliflower sauce topped with mollica (a new one on me: It's bread crumbs), which provided a pleasingly crunchy contrast with the pillowy pasta; in the tagliatelle al granchio con cei verde, however, the tomato sauce drowned out the mild, sweet flavors of fresh crab and green peas.

For those who are counting, the secondi that followed was actually our fourth course (and we hadn't even tried any of the alluring antipasti, including a house-cured lemon tuna conserva, jars of which are displayed on shelves above the banquettes, and mussels cooked with black pepper). The stinco de agnello brassatto was a massive braised lamb shank with autumn vegetables (including carrots, onions, and zucchini), a sturdy and satisfying dish whose tender meat was drenched in a good sticky sauce. I also loved the porchetta al forno, a big slice of pale suckling pig that nearly covered its plate, moistened with pan juices. The simple grilled wild salmon came with an exquisite, tangy herb salad (fresh fennel leaves, basil, mint, Italian oregano) and some strands of pickled onion.

This was a meal as good, no, better than the ones I'd had on my recent trip, and not just because we could linger at table over our desserts (the panna cotta superior to the rather dull fig tart). Since my first visit, Zuppa had stopped serving lunch to concentrate on dinner, and this feast was proof that the owners had made the right move (though the room is so pretty in the light that I hope the place can start serving lunches again). I looked forward to returning for another relaxed repast, which proved to be for a solitary dinner on a drizzly night. I didn't have a reservation, and was led to the same deuce.

It seems churlish to criticize the seafood risotto after the kitchen agreed to make a half portion for me, but still: It was soupy, and if you're garnishing a risotto with a lone shrimp, two mussels, and two clams, it would behoove you to discard the clam whose shell never opened up. I was, however, thrilled with the bistecca alla pizzaiola that followed, a very thick bone-in New York covered with a light sauce of chopped fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic, and Italian oregano, one of the best steaks I've had in this city. I was able to slice through only about half of it. The announced "variety" of roasted beets seemed to be only one, but it was sweet, served in thick, tender slices and well dressed with olive oil. And I was just as thrilled with the superb cheese plate, all-Italian (like the interesting all-Italian wine list): bleu del moncenisio, caciocavallo lucano, robiolla de capra, pecorino lucano, and brescianella -- a thoughtful assortment of creamy and hard. After two dinners, Zuppa had become shortlisted for my favorite Italian restaurant, not just in San Francisco, but anywhere.

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Meredith Brody

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