By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
It's a sensation that foodies chase continually in search of the new new thing: being in the hot restaurant while it's hottest. Conventions of restaurant criticism preclude reviewers being the first visitors through the door, which is fine with me. Let the place get its growing pains out of the way. During my two dinners at Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana, open less than three months in a singularly food-obsessed neighborhood in a singularly food-obsessed city, I had the entirely agreeable sensation of being in a hot restaurant whose hotness was not just the function of its newness.
Farina's construction, in a building that had housed Anna's Danish Cookies for decades, seemed to take forever. There's no vestige of the original occupant to be seen — well, that's not entirely true. A few circles were cut out of the old bright red-and-white sign, and are scattered about the place as tabletops. But there's a new, undulating window-wall façade, lined inside with a wood-and-stone banquette, set in a whitewashed room under tall ceilings opened up to the wooden rafters. There's a long bar, separated from the dining area by a tall divider laden with a carefully curated assortment of wineglasses and bottles. Students of the art of lighting will be pleased with an equally carefully curated assortment, including two bright-red, spidery chandeliers in the front of the room, and several avant-garde sconces and chrome fixtures boasting white linen shades in the back. Racks of bakery shelves stacked with bread line one wall of the mostly enclosed kitchen. The place feels chic, but not aggressively so.
The menu features the cooking of Liguria, a region on the northwest coast of Italy whose capital is Genoa (referenced in Italian as Genova on the front of the sporty brown T-shirts worn by the servers). The cooking of the region is much less familiar to us than that of, say, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, even Veneto.
3560 18th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
Focaccia with melted cheese and prosciutto $16
Coppa and figs $11
Handkerchief pasta with pesto sauce $15
Coppa in walnut-cream sauce $15
Filet mignon with porcini mushrooms $28
Sweet milk fritters $8
Coppa with blackberries $8
At our first dinner, we were irresistibly drawn to two dishes we'd never seen before: cappon magro vecchia Genova, described as a traditional Genovese chilled layered salad with halibut, lobster, mussels, shrimp, cauliflower, carrot, green beans, potato, and beets, and the focaccia di Recco, another Ligurian specialty. The big slab of supple, crisp-edged pizza-like dough came topped with stracchino cheese and curls of Rovagnati ham — instead of sandwiched between two layers of the doughy bread, as the menu had it — and we loved it. The layered salad was more interesting than totally successful. Its ingredients were diced and minced and combined into beet-stained uniformity, resulting in a slightly grainy, fishy-tasting potato salad. In addition to slices of a country bread, we were also treated to warm onion focaccia.
We went on to share two pastas from a list of five, and two secondi (mains), from four. The mandilli al pesto was sublime: handmade, thin "handkerchief pasta" cut in shapes mimicking its name, drenched in a classic, lovely, bright-green Genovese pesto. Utterly delicious. I was not as beguiled by the cappellacci di melanzane burro fuso, handmade ravioli filled with a not-very-compelling sludge of eggplant, summer squash, and brie, in a thyme–brown butter sauce. We tried a variety of glasses from an interesting wine list that features Italian and Californian wines (as well as selections from a full bar and signature non-alcoholic drinks).
For once, the tired but almost inevitable phrase used in reviewing Italian restaurants — that the main courses are not as interesting as the antipasti and the pastas — need not be trotted out. The filetto di manzo Piemontese con funghi porcini, a lovely piece of filet mignon, came in a sticky, meaty deglazing sauce rich with porcini mushrooms and Parmigiano, and the tagliata di tonno nostrano al basilico con pomodori, burrata, e riduzione all'aceto balsamico was an equally carefully cooked chunk of yellowfin tuna, rare at its heart, well served by its companions of heirloom tomatoes, buttery burrata cheese, and a tart-sweet balsamic reduction.
But still better were our three desserts, all of which were astonishingly good. "There's no chocolate on this list," one of my companions observed, but there was, hiding inside a pastry: tortelli dolci al gianduia, a thin skin of crisp cinnamon-and-orange-flavored dough hiding molten chocolate-hazelnut cream, served with three little glasses containing orange, raspberry, and espresso sauce. The latte dolce fritto were impossibly delicate sweet milk fritters, like the old-fashioned crema fritta, but lighter, served with a refreshing, jewel-like citrus salad and blood-orange vanilla sauce — genius. The semifreddo al croccante di mandorle combined several of my favorite flavors (almonds, orange, caramel) to excellent effect: housemade almond ice cream–like semifreddo, with orange crème anglaise and citrus caramel.
Four of us returned for a second dinner. We began with two classic salumi pairings, Parma prosciutto with ripe figs and coppa with burrata, as well as a variation on the focaccia we'd tried the first time, this one topped with tomato sauce, capers, oregano, and a scattering of anchovies. We also had a terrific salad, insalata Catalana con tonno fresco, chunks of citrus and rosemary-scented tuna confit mixed with chopped heirloom tomatoes, sliced yellow Romano beans, diced red onion, and fresh basil, the whole dish cool and summery, served in a colorful, generous heap.