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One by Day, Another by Night 

Two meals yield different experiences at new downtown Venetian-style restaurant

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007
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After a luxurious lunch al fresco at Ducca, and a pleasant if less relaxing dinner, I felt as though I'd been at two different restaurants — and liked them both. But I was more likely to return to the first one I'd visited.

Ducca is located in the newly renovated and renamed Westin Hotel (formerly the Argent) on Third Street downtown, between Market and Mission. Three of us arrived for lunch on a sunny weekday and — after entering the lobby, passing through a large lounge, and peeking into the dimly lit, cavernous, formal dining room — asked whether we could be seated somewhere in the shade on the inviting outdoor patio.

The shaded area was much smaller than the other area where tables and sofas and chaises were placed in direct sunlight, occupied by diners whose imperviousness to the sun beating down was inexplicable to me.

Ducca claims a Venetian allegiance in its cooking, and from the short list of cichetti — Venetian-style bar snacks — we chose olive fritte to nibble on while we perused the rest of the menu. A plate of alici fritti, fried white anchovies with oregano and lemon, was mistakenly delivered to the table, so we got to admire the tiny battered fish before they were whisked away and replaced by the large Italian green olives, stuffed with sweet gorgonzola, battered, and fried. "Mmm, salty," I said, but that only encouraged us to take more frequent sips of the excellent house lemonade, fresh-squeezed and aerated with a bit of fizzy water, and a glass of Italian Bolognani red chosen from the Italian and California offerings on the list.

The presence of a vegetarian among us highlighted how few offerings there were for her on the menu. Only one rucola and arugula salad was flesh-free among the starters, which included fish soup, yellowtail crudo, and salumi. Instead she opted to start with another of the cichetti: aranci, crispy rice fritters stuffed with melting, rich, truffled sottocenere cheese. I asked that the guanciale (cured pork jowl) be served on the side of the watercress and borlotti salad, so she could try it, too, but it could profitably be left off: the two tiny, pale-yellow strips had an off taste and were like no other guanciale I'd experienced. The salad, dressed in a garlic-thyme vinaigrette, was generous in portion, and the large smooth beans were a pleasant contrast in texture to the peppery watercress. But much more interesting was the panzanella salad of juicy peaches, tart sorrel, and chunks of toasted bread ringed by rosy slices of the famed artisanal La Quercia prosciutto made in Iowa. A genius combination.

Our vegetarian was again slightly stymied in choosing a second course. Among the primi, or pastas, the pasta e fagioli came with prosciutto, ricotta gnocchi with chicken, strozzapreti pasta with sardines, and there was not a vegetarian option among the secondi, either. Rather than asking for ingredients to be left out, she went the rice route again and ordered the risi-bisi-style risotto, properly creamy, with English peas, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the unorthodox but delightful addition of tiny florets of sweet cauliflower.

I tried the lamb polpettone, expecting a modest plate of meatballs in sauce, but was surprised and pleased with the enormous, open-faced meatball sandwich I received — a huge piece of toasted bread buried under many fat meatballs, slathered with fresh tomato sauce, and adorned with drifts of melting ricotta and shreds of fresh mint. Our companion was happy and sated with his unusually thick, pan-seared New York strip, set on a bed of farrotto, which is farro, or spelt, a whole grain cooked risotto-style (long-stirred with liquid added gradually) so the grains swell and soften, in this instance with the happy addition of fresh corn, scallion oil, and ubriaco cheese (heady with the wine leavings it's cured in).

By this time we were feeling pretty heady, too, not so much from wine, but from the exceedingly beautiful and calm surroundings. Even though a slender spire towered over us, the spacious patio, lined with a row of graceful Lombardy poplars that swayed in the gentle breeze, seemed as if it were somehow separate from the city, in another place, and that place could have been Italy. The day, which had started like any other, was unexpectedly improved. We extended our miniature vacation, lingering over a fine five-cheese plate featuring both soft and hard varieties, including taleggio, ubraico, and pecorino, each matched with fruit or nuts. We also had a warm, gooey-hearted chocolate-hazelnut cake with rum-roasted banana gelato and espresso.

I was excited to return to Ducca for dinner with my parents. This time the lounge was filled with noisy celebrants and even more noisy music, which proved to be a mildly unpleasant distraction throughout the evening, even though we were seated well into the large restaurant. The big wooden table, dressed up with a white linen runner that snarled repeatedly under our plates, was backed by a banquette-like sofa that looked well-anchored but slid about a bit. My favorite part of the otherwise rather bland décor was the extravagance of elegant Venetian Murano glass chandeliers hung far above us, in assorted trios of black and pale.

My favorite recent trend is that of offering wonderful artisanal salumi assortments, and Ducca's is terrific. It included gentile salame, toscano salame, picante salame, mortadella, and more of the velvety La Quercia prosciutto, this time cut thicker than for the salad, with the welcome touch of acidic house-cured pickled vegetables, including fennel and eggplant. We also tried an unusual and pleasing polenta sformato, something like a crustless quiche, set on peppercress and adorned with a lobster claw, both dressed with a sweet brown-butter vanilla vinaigrette.

We then shared two rather heavy pastas (available in two sizes, appetizer or main): sweet corn tortelloni with thickish dough, obscuring mascarpone custard, with corn in a slick sauce of hazelnut brown butter; and pappardelle in a braised lamb ragu. Neither compelled us to finish them.

And the secondi were also less than thrilling. Even before it was cut into, the dark-brown crust on the veal chop Milanese warned us that it would be overcooked and dryish, and it was. The pan-seared wild salmon, beautifully cooked, was ill-served by its pond of too-saffroned broth, though its orderer enjoyed its Manila clams in the shell and fat fregola, a couscous-like grain. My long-cooked, enormous pork bollito fell apart into shreds that turned dry and mushy in the mouth, and its mint salsa verde didn't do much to improve it. I hungered for a real bollito misto, an assortment of boiled meats with tangy preserved mustard fruits, remembering the terrific misto-ready cotechino sausage I'd had a few weeks ago at another new Italian spot.

There had been several times when I felt service was too slow — our waiter was charming, but overworked — and things came to a halt when we got the dessert menu. Despite seeing two suited managerial types strolling the room, and resorting to the dreaded wave of the hand, it was an increasingly tense quarter of an hour before we could order. The two desserts we eventually received were delightful: a lush mascarpone panna cotta topped with espresso gelee and chocolate granita, and an airy ricotta cheesecake with orange caramel sauce and acacia honey granita. Creamy, crunchy, yummy. I watched in astonishment as my father, who usually only samples desserts, relished every mouthful of the cheesecake.

Formal and involuntarily noisy at night; dreamlike and escapist at lunch. Some quite lovely food will be on your plate, either way.

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Meredith Brody

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