Everyone is beautiful at Piccino. Those two women whose straight brown hair falls to the table as they bow their heads over glasses of white wine? Beautiful. That man in the shirt with the crisp white collar and 14-carat watch? The slim, black-shirted waiter with the Superman jaw and Stephen Malkmus hair? Both beautiful, too. There are tables and tables of the photogenic at Piccino, a restaurant that seems to capture every fantasy about Sunset living, or else it's the California evening light that makes them look so good.
I don't know what the January gloom will do to Piccino's new space, where owners Sher Rogat and Margherita Stewart Sagan moved their 4-year-old restaurant in May. For the moment, though, the room feels as if the canary paint on the restaurant's exterior — they haven't named the 150-year-old structure the Yellow Building for nothing — has bled through the wood to gild the air inside. The interior walls may be white and sparely decorated, but the blond wood counter and tables, the grid of globes suspended from the rafters, and all those windows cast a still, warm glamour over the expansive room.
I set out to compare the 4-month-old incarnation of Piccino against several of the city's other new pizza restaurants, except all of the other places paled in comparison. In fact, Piccino's own pizza paled in comparison to the salads, small plates, and pastas that made up most of new chef Rachel Silcocks' menu.
It was dishes like her halibut crudo ($12), ghostly triangles of translucent fish flecked with torn mint, curls of red chile with a fruity and considerable heat, and triangles of pale pink watermelon that grabbed me instead, the sweetness of the melon tamed by flakes of large-grained sea salt. Or parsley-flecked polpette ($12), the small meatballs porous and fragile, tossed in a bright, sweet tomato sauce.
Silcocks, who worked at Nopa and Cyrus, is cooking in a classic Californian vein, with Italian-inflected flavors that could trace their lineage back to chefs like Paul Bertolli and Judy Rogers.
The portions are small, and big on vegetables, so a meal at Piccino requires at least three courses, or a cluster of plates big enough to press up against the edges of the table and threaten to tilt over your glass of nebbiolo rosé. (The wine list is short, quirky, and largely European, with the exception of a few geek-approved California winemakers like Lioco and Edmunds St. John — no oaky Chardonnays or fruit-forward Pinot Noirs here.)
The sensible thing would be to bulk up with a couple of pizzas, which take up more than a third of the menu. Piccino's pizzas are as big around as an LP and hardly much thicker, as gold as the room, with barely a bubble in the crust or a char mark from the oven. However, whether they're topped with tomato sauce and giant coins of Zoe's pepperoni ($11), tiled over in tomato slices with slivers of garlic and chiles hidden underneath ($18), or studded with a few nuggets of fennel-flecked sausage ($13), they're just sort of ... there. A little indistinct, a little too lightweight. They seem to date back to a previous generation of pizza-making, before brawny, rustic pies from Pizzeria Delfina and Una Pizza Napoletana changed our assumptions of how great California pizza should taste.
So, don't base your meal around pizza; order the magnificent Roman-style semolina gnocchi ($15) instead. The baked, polenta-like dumplings, each the size of a flattened golf ball, are smothered in roasted zucchini and grape tomatoes, with a poached egg that spills its yolk onto the plate. A black-olive sauce spooned over top is just bold enough to cut through the richness of the egg but not so bold that you can't taste the semolina underneath. There is one full-size entrée a day — short ribs over polenta, halibut with flageolet beans — though I was so focused on pizza that I kept passing it over. You could also order two of the chocolate budino ($7), a moist, none-too-rich cake with a mushroom cap of zabaglione, the custard blistered and caramelized with a blowtorch and perfumed with orange zest.
The service, especially on my first visit, reminded me of how appealing San Francisco's formally casual style of dining can be. Nothing was lost, or rushed, but our server talked to us as if she were chatting with a neighbor at the dog park, and slipped in a few details about the origins of the sausage (house-made) and the halibut (a local fisherman) without bragging or moralizing. Did I mention that she was beautiful, too? It may have been the light.