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Barbacco: Sluggish service can stall an otherwise delightful meal 

Wednesday, Mar 17 2010
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There are rules governing seconds. You never want to spend as much on your second wedding as you did on the first. If the New York Times real estate section tells it straight, your second home will always be smaller and more rustic than your showcase mansion. And if you're a restaurateur with a locked-down success, you will always follow it up with a casual spot, one that glows in the light of the first restaurant but doesn't outshine it.

Umberto Gibin and Staffan Terje's Barbacco follows this rule, and cannily. Opened just two doors down from Perbacco on California Street, this wine bar and small-eats place is all about the filigree that surrounds the larger restaurant's rustic-refined northern Italian food: the wine list, the housemade salumi, the scrupulously curated cheeses, and Terje's thing for pork. Barbacco is designed to catch all the business that steers away from Perbacco when customers are not eating on expenses or it's tough to get a last-minute reservation. In fact, it even has a takeout counter at lunch. By and large, the strategy has paid off: The chef's food scales down well and the wine list is so of the moment — focused on Italian and "natural" wines — it will draw its own clientele. There's a tradeoff for eating Perbacco Lite, though: Barbacco's high-volume atmosphere.

There's a very New York feel to the place. The high entryway swoops down into a long, narrow, brick-walled room that would feel claustrophobic if it weren't for all the mirrored surfaces that scatter the gaze. Just inside the door, there's a lobby where people can stand, gawkily sipping their wine glasses and staring at the basketball game on the TV, until they're offered either a spot at the granite-topped bar, face to face with the cooks, or pressed between other diners at communal six-top tables. In Manhattan style, you are allocated four square feet of table space per person to conduct your business.

Barbacco isn't a place for a power lunch, but a lunch for people with power. Though this is not the kind of crowd that turns a communal table into a party, it's impossible not to eavesdrop on the men in $3,000 suits next to you, gossiping about their Harvard Business School connections, or muse over where the woman on the other side, who just called up an $80 bottle with a VP's calm polish, came by her assurance around Oregon pinots. This is downtown, after all, the spot where San Francisco's flouncy, kaleidoscopically printed sundress flies up to expose the gold-plated armor underneath.

That said, if you leave the wine list in its holster, Barbacco is reasonably priced. "Have any questions about the menu?" one waiter began his spiel with. "It's kind of designed to inspire questions." Once you take a few minutes to puzzle out the Italian, the sprawling list of dishes breaks down into simple enough categories, and most items are priced along the micropayment plan. You order a couple of $3 bruschette, a $5 salumi plate or two, an $11 pasta, and a $6 side, and there's a decent meal for $20 a person.

Pork is everywhere. Tiny bits of shredded meat are stuffed into arancini ($3), risotto balls tarted up with tomato, then breaded and deep-fried. Ground pork and veal are formed into soft, almost grainy meatballs ($12), flecked with raisins, and braised in a chunky tomato sauce. And, of course, the pork is cured. Terje's 'nduja, or spreadable salame ($5), is dense, deeper and mustier than the bright-red version salumi rock star Chris Cosentino pimps at Boccalone. Fennel pollen gave the finocchiona ($5) an unexpectedly floral top note, and marble-sized panes of fat mottled every slice, melting the moment you began chewing.

Because each diner is allotted such a small dining space, the servers split up even the smallest order into multiple courses, leading from antipasti to dessert; each microcourse offers another opportunity for a new wine pairing recommendation. When my friends and I would be caught up in drinking and talking, there was something lovely about the way a bowl of burrata ($6/small), trembling as I touched it, segued into a bracing, spare salad of arugula and radicchio ($5/small) and a few slices of peppery piccante salame, then to a bowl of tiny white and purple cauliflower florets tossed with crisp pancetta curls and fried onions. A plate of delicate rotolo ($12), a spongy crêpe rolled around a nutmeg-and-sage–spiced filling of ricotta and chard, was replaced with a bowl of sautéed squid ($8) smothered in a burly, chile-spiked tomato sauce. The dish that stopped all conversation: the chicken thighs ($11) braised with green olives, escarole, sweet cloves of garlic confit, and roasted almonds, a plate that merits every hyperbolic word San Francisco foodistas are already anointing it with.

The sturdy flavors in the food segued seamlessly into those of the "natural" wines that dominate Mauro Cirilli's wine list, holding up to their eccentric aromas, reticent fruit, and vivid acidity. It was all too easy to find myself ordering a 3-ounce pour of a Slovenian white to see what the hell it tasted like (answer: strangely sweaty), and another of a minerally pinot blanc to taste it alongside a sardine bruschetta. Come check time, I found I'd just spent $20 to $30 on a succession of small glasses.

Barbacco's transition from daytime spot to wine bar seemed to affect the service. At lunch, the waiters were fully prepared for a 90-minute-max meal; they moved quickly, bringing our caponata sandwich ($9) precisely the minute we'd dispensed of a (lackluster) roasted mushroom and frisée salad ($7/small). But once the after-work wine drinkers were joined by the making-a-night-of-it diners, the servers couldn't — or wouldn't — always keep up. One of my dinners began at 7 and ended at 10, and we weren't the ones dawdling. We waited 20 minutes for our waiter to notice us after we were seated, half an hour after we finished one course before he stopped by to discover our empty plates, and 20 minutes more for the check. Each time he'd sweep in, blithely smiling over our discontent, conduct business with the polish of a 20-year-pro, and vanish into the throng. The excruciating pace gave me flashbacks to the last time I was trapped in rush-hour traffic behind a crash on the I-80 onramp.

But the night I arrived at happy hour time, another waiter approached strong, advancing pairing suggestions, talking up Cirilli's love for "orange" (aromatic, even sherrylike) wines; when he spotted indecision at the table, he read it as eno-terror and smoothly shifted to pushing sweeter, brighter types. He slid in some learnin' with each glass or plate he delivered, and even apologized when the 6:30 deluge washed him out to sea for a spell. It was a thoughtful performance, and I didn't begrudge him the fact that he kept selling me on additional three-ounce pours of wine. Heck, if the micropayment plan works so well for a casual restaurant like Barbacco, perhaps it will keep online newspapers afloat, too.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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