In these trying and uncertain times, you might not be in the mood for a full-on three-course big-ticket restaurant experience, with its concomitant full-on big-ticket tab. But you still might want to get out of the house and cheer yourself up (or drown your sorrows, depending on how fully invested you are in the current situation) with a nice glass of wine or three and a tasty bite or two. San Francisco, the erstwhile home of the neon cocktail glass, is fast being colonized by neighborhood wine bars where you can hang out and experiment with vintages both familiar and novel. And often there's some delicious provender available, too.
The Lower Haight, home to a number of mostly modest ethnic eateries (as well as the destination small-plates RNM, Rosamunde Sausage Grill, and the Toronado Pub), now boasts an Italian wine bar so authentic that, on leaving after a few glasses of Vermentino or Dolcetto d'Alba, you might feel surprised to see Fillmore on your left instead of the Via Veneto.
Uva Enoteca is modest in decor, clean-lined, and absolutely adorable: white walls, dark wood floors, bentwood chairs, golden wood tables, and simple old-fashioned pendant lights and sconces. In the front room, there are small tables and a long marble-topped bar with high comfortable chair-back stools. In the back room, there's a slightly more dining-room feel, with an immaculate open kitchen and an exposed-brick wall. The feeling is casual but chic.
The one-page menu is divided into affettati and antipasti, pane, and dolci. Affettati means "sliced," which is a tipoff that cured meats are on offer, and antipasti means "before the meal," which covers a wide range of further temptations: verdure (vegetables, cooked or not), insalate (salads), crudo (raw meat and fish), and formaggi (cheese). Pane means "bread," and here bread means business. There are ten different panini as well as the daintier tramezzini, open-faced bruschette, and hearty flatbread piadine. Several pizzas appear here, as well as a soup of the day and a couple of piatti caldi (hot dishes).
We'll save the dolci (sweets) for later. The three of us, settled into a comfortable spot on the front room's banquette, are having too much fun trying to decide what to sample from the extensive savory selections. Our reaction upon perusing the dozen kinds of salame and cured meats, both local and imported, and an equal number of cheeses (all Italian), is that we want to try everything. (The meats are $8 a plate, or $16 for a piccolo assortment, $21 medio, $26 grande, $35 molto; cheeses are three for $10, five for $16, and seven for $22.) Our extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and patient server tells us that the kitchen will make up an assortment for us, or accept suggestions. We ask for the five-item medio cured-meats plate, requesting orange and fennel salame from S.F.'s own Boccalone, and mortadella from Napa's The Fatted Calf. When we hesitate after mentioning taleggio, blu del monviso, and toma for our five-item cheese plate, she suggests sottocenere, a truffled cow cheese, plus perhaps something a little firmer, like parmigiano, to vary the textures. We say sure.
We've arrived during Uva's happy hour, actually a happy hour and a half, which runs from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, so we also order a couple of snacks from tonight's happy hour menu: gnocci friti ($4) and corn pizza ($4). We also choose drinks that are a bit sillier than we might usually be ordering in a house with such an interesting and reasonable wine list, which covers the back of the menu. After all, uva means "grape." The wines are divided by region, including the Alpine border, Adriatic Apennines, Central Tyrenian, and the southern peninsula and islands. We spy many unfamiliar and intriguing grape varietals. Wines that are available by the eight-ounce quartino (about two glasses) can also be ordered in two-ounce tastes; we'll go that route another evening. But tonight we try an intriguing beer "cocktail," the Ultras: a blend of birra bionda, ginger beer, lime, lemongrass, and tarragon (regularly $7, but $4 tonight), and the mildly fizzy red Lambrusco (regularly $8, but $4 tonight).
The gnocci friti are small, lightly fried, crunchy semolina balls under a drift of sharp cheese shreds and breadcrumbs, served with a bright-green pesto sauce. The small pizza with crisp corn kernels and shreds of fresh basil pillowed on soft creamy mozzarella atop a cornmeal-dusted crust is quite wonderful.
Before the cheeses and meats arrive, we're treated to a trio of accompaniments, doled out in a charming ritual I've never seen before. Our server spoons truffled honey, Marcona almonds, and a house-made pear-and-black-pepper jam into three little dishes resting on the lids of open mason jars in a wooden box. There's also a little dish of green olives sparked with shreds of lemon peel. Along with country Italian bread, they turn out to be perfect foils for the rich meats and cheeses we feast on.
The medio assortment, on a long wooden plank, is almost overwhelming in its bounty. In addition to the salame and mortadella we requested, we get velvety prosciutto and tangy coppa from Zoe's Meats in Petaluma, and imported speck, a smoked ham, from Recia in Trieste. The cheeses are all à point. We also try a beautifully balanced plate of sliced ripe plums topped with white ribbons of lardo ($6), cured pig fat that melts on the tongue like butter.
We're sated, for all practical purposes. But we came to play — and we're reluctant to leave this pleasant place, which has almost completely filled up in the hour or so we've been happily grazing. We're tempted by the roasted asparagus with lemon aioli ($5), the tuna crudo ($8.50), and the caponata, arugula, and montasio cheese piadine ($7.50) — hell, we're tempted by the whole menu — but we end up trying both the hot dishes: orecchiette with wild boar ragú ($14) and polenta with shrimp, fava beans, and Padrón peppers ($14).
The hearty, rich pasta turns out to be oven-baked, which lends layers of texture to the dish, from the crisp almost-blackened bits up top to the tender morsels below. The sweet, soft polenta comes with firm pink shrimp, bright-green beans, and — in this case — too-blackened remnants of the peppers, both sweet and hot, which we so love this time of year, but prefer still green and supple.
Boris Nemchenok, one of the co-owners of Uva Enoteca, comes from an S.F. foodie family (his cousin's husband runs Cinderella, one of our favorites, and his mom works at Guittard). He spent five years working at Mario Batali's Otto in New York, and learned his lessons well about the importance of great food in a welcoming space. Co-owner Ben Hetzel, late of the Dining Room at the Ritz, runs the kitchen; his wife, S.F. bar chef Camber Lay, invented the wine-and-beer cocktails. We're dying to try the Milele Frizzante, with mead and peach bitters, and the In Bocca al Lupo, with Lillet Blanc, prosecco, basil, and chiles.
Over a flourless chocolate torta ($8), an insufficiently almondy almond cake ($8, and the only thing we tasted all night that didn't delight us), and a strawberry sorbetto with chunks of rose-scented amaretti and a bit of balsamic vinegar ($7), we try to puzzle out the Latin sayings chalked alongside the diagram of a fat pig on the blackboard by the entrance. "Nunc est bibendum" we already know — "Now is the time for drinking" — plus it's conveniently translated below. But what does "Nil satis nisi optimum" mean? Our server thinks it's "Work hard, play hard," which sounds okay. But it turns out it's the one time she's let us down all night. It means "Nothing but the best is good enough," which makes even better sense in its context. We have a real crush on Uva. We only have one quibble: We wish it were open all day long.