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Palio d'Asti to win, place, and show

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006
As I was driving us to Palio d'Asti on a chilly, windy, rainswept night, I was secretly hoping there'd be lasagna on the menu. A few days before, I'd seen Janice Soprano serve Bobby Baccala a delicious lasagna in her attempt to take the place of his dead wife, killed in a car accident; when Uncle Junior hears the recipe ("sweet sausage along with the beef, and a layer of torn fresh basil leaves under the cheese"), he sniffs, "That's Carmela's lasagna." And he doesn't mean just the recipe: Lazy Janice is trying to pass off Carmela's gift as her own.

Astute Sopranos watchers will wonder why I'm referring to an episode from two series back rather than the currently unspooling Season 6. Suffice to say that I dragged my feet about getting cable after moving here, thereby depriving not only myself but also my parents (for whom I'd dutifully taped Seasons 1 through 3, because my father is still not all that happy about paying for basic cable, never mind your HBO) of subsequent developments in the life and death of New Jersey's favorite crime family. In the interests of getting back up to speed, I gave them the DVD boxed sets of Seasons 4 and 5 last August. And then none of us watched a single episode between then and last weekend, when the pressure of the new season, piling up on my TiVo, made a group marathon viewing essential, before I accidentally learned even more about Season 6 than the shocking ending of Episode 1, revealed to me in half a dozen places (but not to you, by me).

The Sopranos like to eat; hell, one of the family's "offices" is an open-air table outside Satriale's Pork Store. Watching it again made me hungry for Italian. Though my memories of my first meal at Palio d'Asti, last fall, were less than stellar, I decided to give it another try. I'd taken Lee there for a festive, indulgent meal after her longings for white truffles weren't satisfied during our stay in Pordenone, Italy. Palio d'Asti was one of the few places in San Francisco offering white truffles when we returned. I was surprised when the only dish the restaurant offered us was a plain, house-made pasta; I'd hoped for a truffle risotto — or even truffles shaved over soft scrambled eggs — so we'd have a contrast in texture.

On that visit I'd started with a good terrine of foie gras, whose multiple accompaniments, including a frisee salad sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and garnishes of pickled vegetables and mustard fruits, seemed a trifle overwrought. Lee had a huge insalata rossa, mostly radicchio, with slivered red peppers, which she enjoyed. The simple pastas were insufficiently aroused by the shower of truffles at table, and one bite told me why: These fungi were right at the limit of their usefulness, a step away from drying out. (I called the next day, just to check, and was told Palio wasn't offering white truffles anymore — the season was over.) The pasta's price, $35, would have seemed reasonable if the result had been redolent of the fragrance we expected. (I've had white truffles offered as a $40 or $50 supplement above the price of the dish.)

Back then I wasn't thrilled with our table, either; the glamorous part of the restaurant — with views of the glassed-in open kitchens, a mural of the breakneck open-air horse race in Siena after which the restaurant is named, and colorful heraldic flags — is in the back, and we were sequestered in the smaller front room, tucked into a chilly corner right up against the front window. But that night the back room was mostly empty, and even the front room wasn't totally full. The place felt funereal. We tried to cheer each other up with flutes of Prosecco, and ordered a couple of house-made (chocolate) truffles, which didn't really make up for our disappointment.

But lots of other people have cited Palio d'Asti as one of their favorite Italian restaurants, and we'd promised Mary dinner at an Italian place in honor of her late husband Norvel, one of my parents' best friends and a major Italophile. Tonight we were also led to a chilly front-room table, right up against the glass (the shade across it had to be lowered because the headlights from cars exiting the garage across the street glared right into our eyes), but not because the place was empty: The back room was completely full. We were sitting across from a big table of more than a dozen, which looked to me like one of those fake Last Supper tableaux beloved of filmmakers. Mary pegged them, accurately, as conventioneers, made clear when I ventured into the back room and saw many people wearing nametags.

There was no lasagna on the menu. But there were so many other appealing pastas that I suggested splitting a couple between our starters and mains, a plan that went by the board when my father decided he wanted gnocchi as a main course, and my mother indicated a yen for the alluring house-made spaghetti alla chitarra with veal meatballs and smoked veal bacon.

We started with a rerun of the lush foie gras terrine, which tasted more classically French than Italian to me, this time more simply and happily accompanied by a salad of mâche with pistachios, green olives, blood orange sections, and preserved garlic and fennel; a plate of what was described as "the ultimate prosciutto" (I've had better), with a salad of radicchio, fresh fava beans, and shaved pecorino; and tuna carpaccio, raw ahi (a little dull) with bottarga (dried tuna roe) and a lemony arugula salad (the fresh horseradish mentioned on the menu escaped me). I was impressed that each dish came with a different, thoughtful salad. We shared a respectable risotto of the day, more soupy than creamy, laden with lots of prosciutto, snap peas in the pod, and Parmigiano.

My mom had switched from spaghetti to the spring lamb dish del giorno when told it was house-made spicy lamb sausages, several plump, juicy ones served with creamy polenta and roasted red peppers — an earthy, satisfying dish. My father's fat potato gnocchi were dressed with a rich braised baby goat sauce, peas, and clumps of soft, tangy goat cheese. Mary's appealing rack of suckling veal chops, crusted with mustardy breadcrumbs and served with toothsome roasted asparagus and a hazelnut-ricotta sauce, was absolutely delicious, my favorite of everything I tasted. My pricey ($31, the highest-ticket dish on the menu) ciupin alla Genovese, "the original cioppino," was full of mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, and chunks of fish, but rigorous examination (at table and on the leftovers at home) found none of the lobster or crab promised; I also liked the grilled Acme bread more than the saffron tomato broth I dipped it in. (Palio's Web site claims that the restaurant features different regions of Italy according to the season, but this wasn't apparent to me from the menu.)

The amazing desserts were in the same league as the superb veal and the excellent artisanal sausages: a witty, teardrop-shaped, two-layered espresso panna cotta on a slice of almond brioche, an outstanding pistachio semifreddo topped with candied citrus peel, and a fresh rhubarb tart. As we drove away, I said, "That was much better than I expected." And then a reality check: "I liked it," my father said, "but I liked that little Italian place on Union Street more."

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Meredith Brody

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