Handmade pasta is one of life’s singular pleasures, and in the former St. Vincent space on Valencia Street comes Barzotto, a pasta bar with an estimable pedigree. It’s a project between veteran restaurateur Marko Sotto — who’s worked for three of the biggest operations in town, Michael Mina Group, Thomas McNaughton’s Ne Timeas restaurant group, and Beretta, which is part of Adriano Paganini’s Back of the House empire — and chef Michelle Minori, formerly executive sous chef for Ne Timeas.
Like Mid-Market, Valencia has endured high-profile closures, and Barzotto appears to have scrutinized Nostra Spaghetteria, Alexander Alioto’s build-your-own-pasta joint 10 blocks north that lasted less than a year. Here, the ethos is called “fine casual,” and it seems to be a response to the very real problem of keeping a restaurant afloat in an expensive, crowded corridor. I’m not sold on it.
On an individual basis, though, there is much to like — especially visually. Take the brunch porchetta ($14). I’m a sucker for cutting boards and pickled veggies, and like Thanksgiving writ small, this maple-y meat platter ($14) could not have been more invitingly presented. It came with a charred half-lemon for extra pop, but the schmaltzy taters on the side were even tastier. A bowl of baked eggs ($8) was well-cooked and consisted largely of sauce, so the bread is vital to making the most of it. The French toast — a brioche with mascarpone and strawberries — was also nice, as sharp as it was creamy. Beautifully sliced, moist, and eminently shareable, the half-chicken ($17) was similar in layout to the pork, only with tapenade and mustard. It’s not what I would consider a brunch item, but having burned through the entire brunch menu with some residual appetite, we went back for seconds.
And with the exception of the half-chicken, portions at Barzotto run tiny. In the case of a few pastas — in particular the spaghetti — it would be charitable even to call them half a meal. (More like 40 percent, really. Barzotto’s menu explicitly encourages membership in the #CleanPlateClub, but it’s almost impossible not to join.) And although Minori makes all five of them daily, the eventual dishes they become vary in quality.
Her take on bucatini all’amatriciana (with pancetta in lieu of guanciale, plus tomato, chili, and breadcrumbs, $15) was salty and hearty, with a great chew, although there were too many breadcrumbs either to function as a proper crust or incorporate into the sauce. Fazzoletti (or “handkerchiefs,” with slow-braised beef, mushrooms, and rosemary, $17) were limper, and in need of salt and pepper — two things that, bucking an occasionally maddening trend, Barzotto is self-aware enough to place on the table.
Full of capers and anchovy, the strozzapreti ($14) — or “priest stranglers,” probably the most marvelously named food apart from the Turkish stuffed eggplant dish known as “the imam fainted” — were served alla puttanesca, and if you aren’t afraid of brassiness, you’ll love it as much as I did. Maybe out of fear that no one would love regular old spaghetti (with pecorino, parmesan, and black pepper, $10), this plate suffered from major overkill. On paper, it sounds like cacio e pepe, but on the table, it’s almost a fettucine alfredo — and that comfort-food staple is enough of a cream-bomb that adding an unannounced poached egg into the mix makes no sense to me. Too many add-ons, and too little spaghetti; you could probably wrap the entire bowl’s contents around a fork. The best of the five pastas was the cresta di gallo (with cauliflower, garlic, chili, almond, and lemon, $13), which, from a checklist perspective, hit all the notes. It was creative, it was spicy, and the cock’s combs were cooked exactly right.
Other dishes were hit-or-miss. Turkey meatballs (two for $8) are usually a known quantity, but these were exciting and unique: dense, with a texture that wouldn’t be out of place in a dim sum restaurant. (I know that sounds like a head-scratcher, but they were good.) But a little gem salad with a yogurt vinaigrette, pickled cucumbers, and radish ($11) was virtually flavor-free. After all these meats and starches, a few more options would be great, as there’s one other salad, an Italian with giardiniera and chickpeas.
Wines are $10 per glass and $40 per bottle, and they’re arranged in a grid of three columns (light, medium, and bold) and four rows (sparkling, white, rosé, and red). It’s a smart way to present a list in this milieu, and while the Argiano Cabernet-Sangiovese blend had a nose that one of my tablemates called “Trader Joe’s-esque,” the Cora Montepulciano was terrific.
The overall format, though, is the hardest thing to get past. With the understanding that rents are high and margins tight, the fast-casual format is beginning to creep upward as if by capillary action, and in Barzotto, it runs into its limits. This is not an abstraction. I don’t mind prepaying by iPad for a simple one- or two-item lunch or when I’m eating alone, and buzzers on the table are fine. But a nice dinner in a group is a different story — especially when seven dishes come out in the span of 10 minutes. That Barzotto’s staff was attentive, refilling water glasses and all but squaring the cutlery with the table, suggested that that was no accident. Consequently, dinner felt rushed to the extreme, and having to stand up and wait in line again just to get a second glass of wine interrupted the conversational flow even further. This over-engineered solution takes out the incidental pleasures of the dining experience as collateral damage, and would probably horrify most Italians. “Fine casual” is basically the oxymoron it sounds like.
As much as I hope that model doesn’t spread, it’s not fatal. It’s more like an ore that needs further processing until it yields a usable substance, but the “fine” part isn’t totally misplaced. Barzotto’s interior is pretty spiffy, with good lighting, lots of Carrera marble, and troweled plaster walls. As with another pasta-centric joint, Fiorella in the Richmond, the bathroom is wallpapered in a hyperreal city scene, this one of Italian Renaissance buildings piled on top of one another. An expanded menu and a few tweaks and Barzotto could be a very pleasant date-night destination. In the meantime, viva la wallpaper renaissance!
1270 Valencia St.
415-285-1200 or barzotto.com