There are menus that have all the charm and fancy of Gabriel García Márquez novels, and menus with the taut, elliptical wording of an e.e. cummings poem. Some have the intellectual depth of a Hallmark card, while others squeeze their smarts, like Pete Seeger songs, into plain-spoken language. Alexander Alioto's opening menu at Seven Hills — if you know a little bit about the guy — reads like a bildungsroman, a story of his development.
You'd have to be an out-of-towner to miss the significance of his name. Four generations of Aliotos have kept the family prominent in both politics and restaurants (does that mean we'll be seeing Newsoms doing the same in 2050?). Alexander's father, Nunzio Jr., runs the family's eponymous restaurant on the Wharf, which began as a fish stall in 1925. The younger Alioto followed the food track rather than the political one: studying at CCA; staging for a few years in Sicily and Emilia-Romagna and then at French Laundry; cooking in Ron Siegel's kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton; working at the family shop; and helping Alioto's launch the Waterside Cafe last spring. When 1550 Hyde Cafe & Wine Bar closed in August, Alexander and brother-in-law Alexis Solomou did a quick remodel and opened mid-November.
When I looked over the 30-year-old chef's menu, which lists a warm salad of octopus and potatoes a few inches above spaghetti with Grandpa George's sausage and Maple Leaf duck breast with braised red cabbage, I saw a guy who wants — and largely succeeds — to do right by the classics. Seven Hills defines itself as a neighborhood restaurant, albeit one for the nicer houses on Russian Hill. The chef's food scales down formal French and Italian restaurant fare, with a few folksy touches thrown in for more conservative diners, and his menu is peppered with all the names of the producers he regularly places orders with. Seven Hills is not fashionable, in the manner of the whole-animal butchers and the whizz-bang tech geeks, and the service can be off-puttingly inexperienced. But Alioto's food can be very, very good.
And by very, very good, I'm talking about a dish that might become Seven Hills' signature, the raviolo uovo ($7.50). It's a single, coaster-sized dumpling, with the shape and frilled edges of an ottoman cover. It encloses a single egg yolk. The first slice through the raviolo bursts the membrane of the yolk, and thick yellow streams roll out of the pasta to blend with the surrounding pool of brown butter discreetly spiked with truffle oil. The raviolo is constructed of paper-thin pasta and stuffed with homemade ricotta that has been blended with enough spinach to tint it a vivid green. Egg yolk, ricotta, butter, truffle oil: opulent.
Same thing for the duck breast ($26), which is about as textbook a preparation as they come. Alioto slowly sautéed the meat skin-side down until it had barely reached the medium-rare mark and the skin had formed an enduringly crisp crust floating on a few millimeters of remaining fat. He then fanned slices of the breast across a spiced, sweet-tart mix of red and green cabbages, and surrounded it with a straightforward reduction sauce. A few artichoke hearts here, a scattering of parsnip chips there, and it was the kind of dish your cooking-school instructor gives you an A+ for and diners eat with an approachable Lodi merlot. Alioto buys the ducks whole, then also confits the legs and shreds them into a pleasant frisée salad speckled with pomegranates ($9.50).
The chef shows off his Italian training by making his own pastas, and offers them in small and large sizes so they fit into any course. The homiest of the dishes I tried, spaghetti with his grandfather's fennel sausage ($9/$18), the pasta came out overcooked and tossed in a tomato sauce whose acidity had been muted with so much olive oil that it tasted hazy and indistinct. While Alioto used pancetta instead of guanciale in his fettuccine carbonara ($8/$16), he produced a grand version of a dish; the fettuccine had a slippery bite to it, and the pork fat coalesced with the sharp cheese and egg yolk to form a rich golden sauce that sparkled with cracked black peppercorns.
Alioto and Solomou's renovation has shifted the tiny space toward the formal and added a few seats. They have toned down the lighting, covered the walls in long mirrors and paintings, and installed banquettes upholstered in a muted red-wine-colored fabric. The tiny bar at the center of the room is still there, but it's now dominated by a massive spray of white flowers, which are echoed in a giant milk-glass chandelier hanging above the vase.
By rights, the service should match the tenor of the room, and perhaps someday it will; the waiters have the appropriate amount of studied patter, and the courses proceed at a ready, almost eager trot. But the rest of the support staff is uncoordinated, with redundant visits to ask the same questions. At a $50-per-person meal, I've never been approached by a buser and asked, "Okay, what are you guys having for your entrées? I need to figure out if you need a meat knife." And my last dinner ended on a disappointing, amateurish note. Ten minutes after signing the check, as our conversation was winding down, the waiter leaned over. "I'm sorry," he whispered, "but my boss asked me to tell you that we have another reservation waiting. Would it be possible to leave?" We filed out, shaking our heads.
There were a few other flubs, though none as galling — an overdressed salad of frisée, sweetbreads, and sautéed mushrooms ($10.50); undercooked Italian doughnuts for dessert ($7), which were supposed to be custard-centered but just tasted like raw dough; and an oversalted, dry chicken breast cooked under a brick ($20).
But most of the food demonstrated the same solid technique and classic forms — the culinary equivalent of an Armani jacket. A pumpkin sformato ($8.50) countered that squash sweetness with a crisp disk of baked Parmesan and a sharp-edged Parmesan cream sauce, to which Alioto had added a drop of truffle oil (he does like the truffles, but treats them with a graceful restraint). Plush-textured octopus tentacles ($8.50) were tossed with cubed potatoes, a shower of microgreens, and enough lemon juice and olive oil to come off bold but transparent; the dressing never obscured the octopus. Alioto's osso buco ($26) was braised until it transformed into a blossom of delicate meat unfurling from a central bone. His most ornate dessert was also the most successful: a puddle of housemade ricotta, its sweet cream flavor the source of its lingering charm even though the fresh cheese was drizzled with local honey and candied pistachios and garnished with mandarin segments and sheets of baked filo.
It will be interesting to see, as Seven Hills grows into itself, whether Alioto takes off in more fanciful directions — the raviolo hints at it, and so does the ricotta. But he's starting off by demonstrating his command of the classics. Which is not a bad place to start.