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Closer Than Italy 

Lucky Glen Park gets a new neighborhood hangout

Wednesday, Jun 13 2007
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A couple of years ago, my neighborhood was distinctly improved by a new bakery. I was dashing out its door the other Sunday with a ham-and-spinach quiche and a couple of pieces of raspberry and rhubarb buckle when Peter and Anita, who'd introduced me to the place, walked in. One of the best things about your neighborhood joint: You run into your neighbors. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down with them while they had their cheese-and-pesto foccaccia and nutty cinnamon bun, and by the time we parted, we'd made an impromptu plan to have dinner that night in an entirely different neighborhood.

It was a place I'd wanted to take them to for weeks: an adorable little pizzeria in Glen Park, called Gialina. I'd hesitated, a little, because Gialina doesn't take reservations, and, though I'd scored a table the first time I dined there by dint of arriving practically when the doors opened at 5, there was scarcely an empty seat when I left. But when I told my friends that the pizza I'd had that night was as good in its way as my other S.F. favorites — Pizzeria Delfina and Pizzetta 211 — they were willing to take their chances.

Which turned out to be good. At 6 p.m., we had our choice of several tables and took the one nearest the compact open kitchen, after catching too much of a breeze at a table nearer the storefront's door. Gialina is nicely outfitted with pale wood paneling over plum-colored walls, striking orangey art-glass pendant lights, and simple wood tables and chairs, but the most striking design elements are four enormous blown-up black-and-white photographs, snapshots, really, of Italian people enjoying life and food. One of them turns out to be the owner's grandmother, Nonni Lina, the place's namesake, who came from Emilia-Romagna, arguably Italy's best-eating province.

But I don't think anybody in Emilia-Romagna is eating better than we are tonight.

We start with a beautiful and generous salumi plate, a platter, really, covered with four different kinds of preserved meat, including strips of pale-pink prosciutto-like speck banded with creamy fat, and two Fra'mani salamis, mild nostrano gentile and spicy soppressata, a pile of varicolored olives, sharp and pretty house-pickled vegetables, creamy fresh ricotta, and bread slices.

We couldn't resist ordering the steamed Manila clams, and when they arrive piled in a bowl, in a deeply flavored garlicky white wine broth speckled with minced chilis, we can't resist eating them, either. Balancing out the rich meats and the plump briny clams is a tricky salad, all of whose individual elements I enjoy — red leaf lettuce, halved organic Brook cherries, toasted chopped almonds, and a slice of Cypress Grove Bermuda Triangle goat cheese — without finding them completely convincing as collected. But I dip into them as I do the salumi plate. From the entirely Italian, brief but well-chosen wine list, we sample glasses of two good reds, a Sangiovese and a Nero D'Avolo, and a delightful sweet, sparkling Moscato d'Asti.

I'd previously enjoyed the asparagus, green garlic, pancetta, and Perlagrigia truffled cheese pizza, to which I'd greedily added an egg ($2 extra). Enjoyed, in fact, doesn't quite cover it: I adored it. It appears on tonight's list, along with eight other topping assortments.

I'm astounded when a guy complains to his girlfriend, as they stand at the counter trying to agree on takeout, that there aren't enough vegetarian options. She points out that fully four of the nine are: the classic tomato-and-cheese Margherita; a three-cheese, with ricotta, provolone, and pecorino; something called the Atomica, featuring spicy Tutto Calabria chilis and red onions as well as tomato, mushrooms, and mozzarella; and an intriguing combination of cauliflower, caramelized onion, sage, and young pecorino. And I would point out that, just as you can add prosciutto, pepperoni, anchovies, or sausage for a few bucks to any pie, you can also ask them to hold the anchovies, applewood smoked bacon, guanciale, or pancetta.

We, however, don't ask anybody to hold the slow-roasted pork from the pie it appears on, along with zucchini, tomato, and pungent Taleggio cheese. And we add two eggs to the Atomica, which arrive, alas, distinctly undercooked on the otherwise tasty assortment. Maybe the kitchen thought that the residual heat of the pizza would do the trick, but it didn't. The glory of both these pizzas is their thin yet substantially flavorful crust. If you're the kind of person who leaves crusts on your plate, I'm the kind who would snatch them away from you.

Gialina features what they call a roast of the day, which I sadly point out is actually a roast of the night. You can tell I'm infatuated with a place when I say "I wish they were open for lunch. And brunch," which I do tonight with real feeling. We try tonight's, the country roasted chicken, singularly plump and juicy, under browned skin, with caramelized, slightly underdone cauliflower, and wedges of roasted potato, which I also wish had spent a little more time in the oven.

All of tonight's desserts sound tempting, including a strawberry-lemon tartlette, ricotta cheesecake, and three flavors of Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream. But we can't resist the dessert pizza, and when it comes, floury and puffier than the thin savory pizzas, and heaped with warm Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread, and amaretti crumbs, dotted with clouds of sweetened mascarpone, we're glad we didn't resist. I'd feared it was a stunt, but it was more like a triumph, especially enjoyed between cooling spoonfuls of the house-made strawberry Italian ice that we also didn't resist.

When I say that a place is a neighborhood restaurant, I don't mean that it's not worth traveling out of your own neighborhood to visit. The fact that it serves its own locale well is indeed one of its attractions — at Gialina, they tell you, "If you live in the neighborhood, call before you leave home, and we'll hold you a table," which is part of the reason I saw several families with young children both times I visited. Everything we had at Gialina was extraordinarily good. And Glen Park is so much closer than Emilia-Romagna!

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Meredith Brody

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