Part of the reason I think about the six-way intersection of Church and Market and 14th streets so much is that when I moved to San Francisco, there used to be a gay bar called The Transfer there — and it was totally disgusting and awesome and I loved it. (It’s Churchill now.) The Transfer was there the last time I visited before moving here, in fact, and it was there that I met the very first person I ever went home with in this city.
Anyway, Church and Market makes me smile tenderly and always will, so it’s pained me to see it all fall apart, with all the vacancies piling up and Aardvark Books’ unclaimed Stranger Things-esque sign dimmed. Worse, the other day I was with a friend with good taste who all but cooed at the rounded windows in the seven-story building that has gone up on the site of what used to be Home. It’s better designed than most of the wedge-shaped bores that have sprung up on Market Street in the Castro, but sadly, it won’t even be condos. It’s a non-hotel hotel called Sonder that’s offering 30-day-minimum “housing” in what seems to be a cynical end-run around S.F. ordinances.
In other words, a scrappy intersection just went Full Douchebag.
But not all is lost. First, we have Beit Rima, Samir Mogannam’s wonderful home for fast-casual Arabic comfort food. And even though Church said ciao to Chow, it’s been replaced by the noticeably more upscale Cook Shoppe while the second location of North Beach’s Il Casaro has opened in what used to be Chilango.
Is this the end of the death spiral? I hope so. Il Casaro, in particular, has a magic touch, imparting haute-summer California seasonality to some hyper-Italian dishes rooted in the heel of the boot. The name means “the dairyman,” and while it’s basically a carb-atorium, you’re going to feel the dairy with a blob of burrata against some chunks of basil-covered grilled peach (some more flavorful than others, but still). Pizza is the way to go, especially a mortadella pie flecked with pistachios and some bonus shavings of pecorino that aren’t listed on the menu. While every table comes standard with Calabrian chile oil, the Calabrese pizza is another to consider. It may not be for the faint of esophageal lining, but the intensity of the ’nduja on top is perfect against the relatively pillowy crust.
’Nduja, perhaps the most rustic of all sausages, appears again in a bowl of mafaldine, but it’s the bucatini amalfi with summer squash that embodies the season best. That it also has fennel pollen and Gulf shrimp should intrigue you, although it seems as though Il Casaro made a decision to channel all creativity toward pasta while keeping the pizzas straightforward. A broccoli-averse server amiably cautioned us against the radiatore, but as presented, it scans as a slightly more vegetal version of pesto — plus one set off with delicate favas and even more delicate English peas. Oh, and if you’re really set on maximizing the Calabrian chile oil, the Cinecittà is the right cocktail. An admixture of dark rum, Averna, walnut bitters, and the oil, it’s an aperitif that can ride through the meal without turning saccharine (unlike the Barbarella, made with bourbon, prickly pear, lime, and balsamic vinegar, which just didn’t mesh).
The opening sentence to a paragraph of wall text translates to “You don’t get old at the table,” but you can pave the way for it anyway with a salumi trio consisting of copa, wild boar salamino, and a heavenly, 24-month aged Parma prosciutto. When that hog was butchered two years ago, Church Street was a very different place.
So what do we make of Cook Shoppe, which does its best to resurrect Chow’s gathering-place ethos even though a new endeavor can probably never turn a profit with heaping, 1990s bowls of pasta? It’s got more greenery and more mid-century accents, plus they installed the bar on the opposite side, although it feels a bit careful and airbrushed, like a WeHo restaurant angling to be featured on Bravo. (The soundtrack, at least on my visits, was gay-basic, one step above lowest-common denominator retail oonce-oonce-oonce.) Spiritually, this is as much a successor to Chow as to 18th Street’s recently shuttered Eureka, which was more lounge than diner. But we should be glad of it, since anything that refuses to cede ground in the Castro to the forces of tech-banality is good — and this is better than just anything.
I can’t remember the last time I had a lobster bisque that was more than banquet-hall dutiful, but this one is as rich as it gets, dosed with vanilla and some herbaceous croutons. As with almost-next-door-neighbor Il Casaro’s peach-and-burrata dish, stone fruit gets top billing here, with a grilled nectarine salad thatched with enough arugula to line an Easter basket, pepitas, and feta rather than goat cheese — a small but crucial distinction.
There is caviar service and there are deviled eggs and baked oysters, but this is not Leo’s Oyster Bar. Witness the burger, geologically layered in true diner-deluxe fashion with an Angus-and-brisket patty, bacon jam, aioli, fried shallots, house-made half-sours, butter lettuce, a slice of tomato, and fries. In a world of In-N-Out duplicates, that’s a thoughtful build, with the requisite gem-toned, plastic-wrapped toothpick keeping it intact. Dessert is more than an afterthought, with a peach crostata served aside ice cream being the bullseye. While Il Casaro’s cocktails outshine the wine, at Cook Shoppe it’s all about the two dozen reds, more than half of them available by the glass. This is for date night.
With about three grotesque exceptions, I’ve never wished ill on any restaurant I’ve reviewed. (If I’m pretty sure I’m going to hate it, I don’t bother.) But seldom have I been rooting for two spots to jointly revive a moribund wasteland dear to my heart. Nobody’s reinventing the wheel at Il Casaro or Cook Shoppe. But they’re taking it.
Il Casaro, 235 Church St., 415-875-9421 or ilcasaropizzeria.com
Cook Shoppe, 215 Church St., 415-580-7396 or cookshoppesf.com