If there’s one domain of upscale dining that has officially been done to death, it’s charcuterie. But if there’s any room left for originality, it might be by going back to the source, re-anchoring it to the rustic cuisines whence it came. Chef Donato Scotti aims to do just that at Cento Osteria, the fourth spot in his Donato Restaurant Group and the first in S.F. proper. With its wood-fired oven and house-made salumi, it’s making a play for authenticity and freshness in a zone that’s been tackled more than a few times.
An indication of success comes in the baccalà ($15), a salt-cod mousse over grilled polenta that’s much less salty than its sounds. It’s quite rounded, in fact, absorbing plenty of parsley oil to balance any whiff of the briny deep. Fegatini, a chicken liver pâté with a thinner consistency ($14), was fine enough but for the fig compote to Elsewhere in the starter column, the u’cuoppo napoletano (essentially a sampler of arancini and other fried delights, $14) with an uninspired tomato dipping sauce was uniformly flavorless and best avoided.
Should you gravitate toward the pizzas, the natural home for charcuterie, go for the cotto e funghi ($17), a lovely six-slice combination of meaty oyster mushrooms with garlicky salami over simple tomato sauce on a chewier-than-average crust. Offered chili flakes and chili oil, it might be hard not to treat it like a corner pizzeria, but be sparing. It could use more ricotta, however. Penne arrabiata ($16) with plenty of calabrian pepper arrived with a pat of ricotta melting over it, and while the hit of pepper is homey to the hilt, the pappardelle al cinghiale ($18) was its clear superior. There, you stand at the triple junction of Cento Osteria’s full potential: a slow-cooked ragu with a plenty of meat over pasta with the perfect texture that’s made in house. While it might sound wholly out of joint, the most exciting cocktail was the Alessio ($13), an elegant gin martini with lime and apricot bitters that comes off as a fragrant stone-fruit margarita.
To dwell too heavily on 100 Brannan St.’s history as a cursed space is to sow doubt or put a thumb on the scales, but the location undeniably has drawbacks. Although it faces the Embarcadero, it’s not technically a waterfront restaurant, which is a minus for the crowd that loves such things. And the building has a strange shape, with too many unnecessary corners that, instead of providing little nooks for romance or mystery, give the dining room something of a cafeteria feel. You can see almost everywhere from everywhere else. Osterie are small, with limited menus, yet Cento’s has five sections, each of which may rotate seasonally. With the dual emphases on pizzas and house-made charcuterie, the closest living relative would probably be Andrea Giuliani’s excellent, year-old Pausa, in downtown San Mateo.
Cento’s best hour is the apericena, a sort of value-driven “aperitivo-plus” from Milan that’s built around olives, cheeses, and meats and available from 3:30-7 p.m. (Those are the food pyramid components that get me out of bed in the morning, just to put a personal bias out there.) Not quite happy hour, not quite a full dinner, it’s meant for students and people who may not always have someone getting a home-cooked meal for them after work, something that suggests it’s Scotti’s attempt to wrestle Blue Apron to the ground with continental panache. Along with the smoked duck risotto and the squashed flatbread with guanciale and gorgonzola, the $7 Aero Viale (rye, Aperol, red vermouth, and lemon) and $7 Negroni certainly sweeten the pot.
Overall, you get the feeling that Cento Osteria is a little too large for its own good, or maybe that the scale of it closes off much possibility of being arty-casual and turning a profit. The restroom is certainly as charmless and institutional as a Catholic high school’s. It pains me to say it, but the staff needs another pass when it comes to ins-and-outs of the menu and to making suggestions and recommendations, too. Otherwise, a few minor fixes could smooth things out, like a sign near the host stand indicating that the bar is in fact open seating. But I’d hate to see structural issues cave in around a menu this sprightly. Primi up, Scotti.
Cento Osteria, 100 Brannan St., 415-543-1000 or centoosteria.com