Maybe it's because the Italian-inflected seafood restaurants at the Wharf sucked up all the oxygen, but it's always struck me as unusual that Union Square has so few Italian restaurants. With very few exceptions — Fino on Post Street comes to mind — there's hardly anything to cater to locals or to the tourist trade in the Tenderloin or Lower Nob Hill, and you'd basically have to walk all the way to Delarosa (or, if you prefer, Acquerello) to find one that's especially well-regarded.
Not anymore. Tratto, a project by Chef Kevin Scott, formerly of The Big 4, has filled the space that was once the oyster bar in Grand Cafe and later the very short-lived BDK — which lasted for a matter of months in early 2015 before contractual issues with what was then the Hotel Monaco, and which were unrelated to the restaurant, caused the staff to depart. (BDK served new American food, but in spite of being generally well-reviewed, its existence was too brief to make much of a lasting impression.)
Tratto calls itself “a modern trattoria with a rustic soul” — and indeed, you can get a jug of red or white wine for $30 — but even though Italian peasant fare presents such a wealth of opportunities to dive deep into rusticity, Tratto seems to shy away from it. Ultimately, the issue is a shortage of ambition. There's polish and professionalism throughout, and the prices are very reasonable, but most dishes span the narrow range between good and very good. The approach doesn't feel superficial, which is impressive considering how slick hotel restaurants can be. Dishes aren't phoned-in, either; they're simply modest, such that the most expensive thing on the menu is neither rustic nor trattoria-esque: an $18 burger. There's plenty here to like and not as much to love.
Individual dishes can be very tasty, though. Take the butter beans with goat cheese, roasted tomato, and bread crumbs ($6). A small plate, they're nicely calibrated so that the textures don't become a homogenized mush. And while that dish is certainly an appetizer, I could have eaten a big bowl of them and been happy. A Tuscan kale salad, with cured anchovies, lemon vinaigrette, and Parmesan ($11) arrived a little overdressed, but the criss-crossed anchovies on top lent a bit of snap. (If some of their saltiness could somehow be transferred to the $9 Venetian meatballs, which felt like fried ground meat with minimal seasoning, it would have been ideal.) And the $14 fried chicken thighs — also very much an app, but listed on the menu heading under “meat,” so watch out if you're expecting an entree — felt liked they were fried at too low of a temperature, and sized in that awkward no-man's-land between fork-and-knife territory and finger food. Flaky as it ought to be, I almost can't believe the pan-roasted sea bass with herb salad and olive tapenade is only $16.
It's almost impossible not to damn the $15-$16 pizzas I had (a Calabrian sausage with broccolini and ricotta, and a mushroom pie with fontina and basil pesto) with faint praise. They were decent, respectable, solid. Each — along with the third, a tomato-mozzarella-basil pizza — is dutifully constructed around a different cheese, and it is there that the creative energy comes to rest. Although just as simple in preparation, the pastas were more exciting. Both the spinach tagliatelle in a meat sauce ($17) and the pappardelle with tomato, butter, and Parmesan ($14) were well-cooked, hearty, and satisfying. If this is rusticity as Scott imagines it, then I see no reason not to experiment a little more, since the execution is great. (Just on the basis of some casual eavesdropping, it was apparent that The Marker draws a foreign clientele — but this could be confirmation bias, and my logic might just be wrongly stereotyping international travelers as inherently sophisticated. Or maybe the kitchen is chafing under hotel management's conservative thumb.)
Tratto serves breakfast and weekend brunch but not lunch on weekdays. Morning service hugs eggs tightly to its chest — I would have gotten the duck confit instead of the eggs benedict ($15), but they were out — although I'm very happy to say that the bagel with smoked salmon and all the other fixings ($16) is really good. Weekday breakfast is definitely where you want competence above all else, so it's hard to quibble there.
It's the drinks where the imagination really comes through. Tratto serves a Negroni flip (Beefeater gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and egg, $12) that tastes like melted ice cream, and the idea of a “Boozy Italian soda” (a house-made syrup with your choice of alcohol, $12) is a good one. I went with bartender's choice and got a raspberry-vodka concoction that I'd order again in a heartbeat even though I normally harbor a break-glass-in-case-of-vodka attitude.
While the name sounds like an abbreviation of “trattoria,” Tratto also translates roughly to mean “stroke of the pen.” This is a nod to its location inside The Marker, and something that sounds great as a bullet point in a presentation but which will probably be lost on virtually everyone who walks in the door. Grand Cafe's Deco accents are long gone, and BDK cleaved the space in two, anyway. But if — in hotel-restaurant fashion — you don't object to walking through the lobby to use the restroom, Tratto retains good bones.
The word has lost a bit of shine in the era of Trump, but this restaurant is, if nothing else, classy. The bar, the plants, and the arched windows all conspire to form an understated Old World grandeur, and the tiled floor is patterned in at optical-illusion 3D way that's mesmerizing in the manner of a doodle of a transparent cube, albeit a more elegant one. But the walls are even better — S.F. cityscapes that follow the principles of single-point perspective while also conveying distortions like what you can get with an iPhone camera in pano mode. They're by Amos Goldbaum, and recall the line drawings of Wendy MacNaughton — but also remind me of the restroom in another Italian restaurant, Fiorella in the Richmond — and they're the coolest thing going.
A little more oomph and dazzle from the kitchen to match, and Tratto could be great.