Che Fico: Mad Fig in the Fog

David Nayfeld and Angela Pinkerton's long-awaited Roman-Jewish restaurant is probably going to be on a lot of restaurant-of-the-year lists.

The world’s prettiest chopped duck liver. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

For everyone who can comfortably digest it, burrata is a delight, and there’s something about serving it with asparagus that feels like the official confirmation of spring’s arrival. It might have a little to do with asparagus looking a tiny bit like an asphodel, the leaves of which are traditionally used to wrap burrata. The likelier reason is that both burrata and asparagus have gentle flavors that are otherwise polar opposites, milky and smothering versus clean and earthy-sulfurous — and when they come together, it’s magic.

That’s how it is at Che Fico, David Nayfeld and Angela Pinkerton’s four-years-in-the-making Italian restaurant one floor above Divisadero Street that’s largely focused on the flavors of Rome’s community of Jews. Pinkerton won a Beard Award as the executive pastry chef at New York’s Eleven Madison Park before going on to Craftsman & Wolves, and her sister restaurant Theorita is slated to open next door to Che Fico, while Nayfeld also worked at Eleven Madison Park as well as at Cru, the Manhattan temple with a 65,000-bottle wine portfolio. The name of their new joint project transliterates to “what a fig,” but it’s better rendered in slang as “how cool.” And it is cool, although coolness in restaurants can be a double-edged sword.

Not to lay forth a tangential disquisition on the nature of hype, how it can perpetuate itself while undermining the very thing it’s attached to, but Che Fico has been a long time coming. It’s been in suspended animation at the bottom of my places-to-eat Google Sheet since around the time David Bowie died. So the impulse is to crow — unless you’re a contrarian spoilsport, in which case the impulse might be to judge the people who are doing that crowing as hype-devouring sheeple. But I’m gonna crow.

Che Fico isn’t perfect. It’s expensive — a $29 half-chicken feels like the most calculated price point imaginable, because in addition to falling a dollar below a symbolic threshold, it turns out that’s exactly half of Zuni’s $58 baked chicken for two. The weakest link is the cocktails, few of which jumped out and several of which end up tasting soapy against the saltier dishes. But what Che Fico is is exciting. In a restaurant scene that’s becoming a little full of me-too-ism and empty of hidden gems, it’s something different, sometimes going for sheer beauty and other times taking risks. I never thought in a million year I’d ever order, much less enjoy, a pizza with pineapple ($20), but sliced thinly and with sufficient red onion and fermented chili on it, it yields a measured spicy-tangy flavor like top-notch Thai as opposed to canned Hawaiian.

Good execution starts with the suppli ($4), fancy arancini that are extra-crunchy on the outside and come with only rice and tomato sauce, plus some shaved parmesan on top. The caciocavallo ($12), another stretched-curd cheese, comes served like a high-acid rarebit on Josey Baker bread with plenty of meyer-lemon preserves. As a rule, Che Fico’s palate runs sweet.

For haute-grandpa food, corned beef tongue ($14) appears with some pickled mustard seeds and capers and some celery shaved lengthwise so that it’s curls upon curls. It’s a tongue kiss. Offal-evaders can probably dodge it, but good luck denying yourself a scoop of grilled chopped liver ($11), served in a ring beneath watery-purple daikon the color of a tropical jellyfish and some pink onion, plus black-and-white sesame seeds and flower buds. Few things feel as Depression-era as liver and onions — but on an ultramarine plate, Che Fico’s is beautiful, its vegetable components holding down that mouthful-of-nickels quality liver sometimes has, along with matzo for scooping. The individual components of the $14 chicken-heart and gizzard salad — potatoes, peas, pickles, olives, and aioli — don’t really cohere into a whole nearly as well, though.

Crusts with cheese in them are a way that Pizza Hut reminds us of its existence, but Che Fico dusts its Ode to Judy Rodgers pizza ($18) with ricotta salata all the way to the edge. A love letter to Zuni, it looks like it travelled through a goose-down pillow fight blizzard — but more importantly, its crust is charred so that it releases the dough’s tang and sweetness, and the center avoids getting gooey or limp. That is definitely not going to be to everyone’s taste, but good on them.

Pastas are great, like the $28 bigoli nero with razor clams and Dungeness crab that’s got a squirt of lemon and a dusting of breadcrumbs — and that’s it. Considerably less salty, the combination of sheep’s milk ricotta with mint and walnuts is almost as exalted as burrata and asparagus, and it fills the less assertive triangoli ($28), perfumed by a bit of avocado blossom honey. Looking like octopus tentacles or a pesto-green version of a British judge’s wig, the mafaldini ($19) was probably the best, an eminently satisfying al dente flavor-bomb with another snowcap of cheese.

If you do get that half-chicken, prepared with a sweetish glaze and unusual in that the white meat was the more flavorful, it absolutely must be paired with the stone-ground polenta ($7) that tastes appealingly of pulverization, super-saturated with cheese. A glass of Il Cancelliere ($15), an Aglianico that demands such richness, was just perfect.

Dessert is slowly fading away as soft-serve overtakes everything and restaurants farm out the duties of pastry chefs, but Pinkerton just might stabilize the profession with her cannoli and the proto-Nutella known as gianduja. Her strongest offering is barely half as sweet, an olive oil cake with malted-yogurt gelato and a roasted-strawberry vinaigrette. Reconfigured, those ingredients could almost be on an adventurous salad, but their energies are directed entirely toward gratifying the palate after everything that came before.

Maybe because of its breadth, its principals’ pedigrees, and the time it took to arrive, Che Fico is going to be on a lot of year-end lists. Making such a pronouncement in mid-May feels OK to me, in the way that too-clever people can make 0.45 round up to an even 1. But the thing about it is that it feels already complete — something that isn’t even wholly true, since the netted meats in the salumi room are still in utero. But in terms of the execution of a vision, it’s already there.

Some of that has to do with the space, which has exposed timbers and skylights where most restaurants would be content to stick HVAC tubes and call it “industrial.” It is industrial, but warmer than most — and too full of personality to feel as cookie-cutter as so many other places. The variety of seating alone works feng shui wonders in what could be a cacophonous room. I’m trying not to go too gaga for the wallpaper, which employs figs as happy-looking as a lickable Wonka schnozzberry — and the restrooms have a vintage Italian pop star splattered all over them — or even that glassed-in salumi-curing station, which is impossible not to stare at without getting hungry while also thinking of Damien Hirst. But even a marathon coder who eschews eye contact at all times could sense the dynamism at work here. You’ll give a fig.

Che Fico, 838 Divisadero St., 415-416-6959 or chefico.com

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