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More surprising than the fact that the address of 54 Mint is actually 16 Mint Plaza is that there's a new Italian restaurant in town that not only doesn't specialize in pizza — it doesn't even offer pizza. It turns out that 54 Mint was the building's old address before the plaza was constructed behind the Old Mint in a singularly successful bit of urban renewal anchored by Chez Papa Resto and a stylish Blue Bottle Cafe. And 54 Mint specializes in Sicilian cooking. Sicily, the large island near the toe of the boot of Italy, was colonized, among others, by Greeks and Arabs, who left their marks on its food — notably the use of saffron, raisins, and nuts.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
It's a lusty, uncompromising, boldly flavored style of cooking. The menu, a simple list of about 20 dishes not separated by categories, starts with almost-unadorned and pricey plates of cheese (three-year-aged Parmigiano drizzled with balsamic vinegar, $14; two-year-aged pecorino with quince jam, $12). It then travels through salads, seafood, and pastas, and ends with a few secondi — at our dinner, galletto alla diavola, organic Cornish hen grilled with rosemary and garlic ($20); frittura di pesce, deep-fried prawns, calamari, and cod ($20); and porchetta, rolled pork belly ($16).
Arancino nero ($14) was described as a deep-fried ball of squid-ink–infused rice stuffed with spicy shrimp, but unlike the classic round, saffron-scented arancina di carne ($12) stuffed with meat sauce we saw on neighboring tables, our dish was presented in a brick-shaped block. It was topped with a whole pink shrimp in its shell that echoed its bit of shrimp filling, which was somewhat overwhelmed by the lightly crusted squid-ink risotto that enfolded it. Carpaccio di polipo ($12) was tender rings of octopus in a simple salmoriglio dressing of olive oil, lemon, parsley, and fresh oregano. The baccalà ($12), salt-cured codfish croquettes, were shaped like small torpedos, unusually coated in crunchy sesame and fennel seeds, and served with aioli. This was salty, challenging food, with big and loud flavors. The only exception was the carciofo romana ($10), an already large artichoke swollen to twice its size by a stuffing of breadcrumbs, cheese, and fresh herbs — there was much more stuffing than we wanted, or could eat, and it was far too bready and bland.
Italian food scholars make fun of American kitchens that pile lots of sauce on pasta, but the kitchen at 54 Mint does just that. The bucatini con le sarde ($16) mixed plenty of mashed fresh sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, and raisins with its thick, al dente strands of imported durum grain pasta. The trenette al pesto trapanese ($14) was thinner, softer strands of house-made pasta blended with a Sicilian pesto made with tomatoes, almonds (some still roughly chopped), and fresh basil — without the expected cheese. (Parmesan was freshly grated atop the pastas at table on request.) The gnocchi al ragù ($14) was superb: lots of silky potato gnocchi topped with an equal quantity of deeply flavored meat ragù made with beef and pork. It was my favorite dish of the meal.
The description of the porchetta ($16), roasted rolled pork belly, omitted that it was, unusually, stuffed with pork liver — another pungent flavor with an interesting dense and crumbly texture that contrasted with the soft, pale meat ringed with melting fat and crusty skin, all served atop a simple potato purée.
The soft Nero d'Avola red ($32) we shared from a largely Italian wine list managed to complement both the seafood and the meat dishes. Somehow the accommodating staff even managed to conjure up something close to a brandy Manhattan ($10) for one of us, despite a limited supply of hard liquor that was surprisingly lacking a bottle of sweet vermouth.
The dining room at 54 Mint is as charming as the staff. Its walls of exposed brick, some left red and others painted crisp white, are lined with shelves laden with artistic yet homey displays of canned and bottled oils and vinegars, pastas, and capers. Over one end of the long marble-topped bar — at which you can sit on tall upholstered chrome stools — is a metal rod hung with hams and looped sausages. Comfortable white-painted wooden chairs pull up to compact square wooden tables topped with silvery-green placemats. You can glimpse the tops of trees through tall windows. It's a thoughtful and chic mix of country and city. There are two large communal tables downstairs, which has a more rustic, wine-cellar feeling. When we learned that one of 54 Mint's owners is Alberto Avalle, who also co-owns Il Buco in New York, the stylish settings made sense. That Italian restaurant began as an antique store, and continued to sell furniture as well as meals for quite some time.
The torta di cioccolato ($8), a flourless chocolate cake served with plenty of whipped cream, was highlighted with a few roughly chopped almonds (not unlike the chunky texture of the pesto). The crusty, dense olive oil cake ($8) came with another huge drift of cream and some underripe strawberries. Best was the crostata ($8), an individual cherry tart baked with mascarpone.
At lunch, where you might expect a lighter menu, perhaps with panini and the like to cater to the downtown shopping and business crowd, the menu is virtually identical to the dinner list (lacking only specials such as the porchetta, which we were told takes an entire day to prepare). There are lots of tables outside, but since there are no umbrellas or canopy, we dined inside (as the sun moves toward the west, the building gradually creates its own shade). The completely unadorned salumeria plate ($16), four or five slices each of La Quercia coppa alongside lomo (cured pork), chorizo, and capicola imported from Spain, summed up the philosophy of 54 Mint's kitchen: All the meats were chewy, porky, and highly flavored. There were no attempts at extraneous decoration, no little piles of nuts or preserved fruits or jams. The plate's only accompaniment was chewy slices of Italian bread. We missed the salty housemade focaccia served at dinner, also promised on the lunch menu but not yet emerged from the ovens.
The salumeria was exactly what we wanted to eat. The almost-as-unadorned frittura di pesce ($20), tons of lightly fried calamari piled on undressed salad greens with four small chunks of cod and topped with two shrimp, was ringed with lemon slices. All we needed afterward was a cup of 54 Mint's excellent espresso.
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