The Charm of Fiorella Replicates Itself on Polk Street

Hurry up and get that baby fava fritto, the gentlest fried thing you'll taste this spring.

Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

While evaluating the Old World dirtiness of the Italian wines on Fiorella Polk’s list, my dinner companion engaged with the sommelier at more than just the customary back-and-forth level. He lavished an inordinate amount of attention on us before redirecting us right where we had started: the Aglianico del Vulture, one of the quizzically underappreciated varietals of Southern Italy. At some restaurants, that might be a faux pas or a conversation that would have iced over, but at Fiorella, it basically made us instant buddies.

“It’s kind of a PG-13 list,” with respect to dirtiness, the somm said.

Feeling tired, I went with the Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco because I wanted something effervescent to wake up my palate. Beneath its considerable sweetness lay that amaro edge that’s such a quintessentially Italian flavor profile. But that effervescence was the more illuminating quality, since it’s what undergirds Fiorella’s approach. Having opened on Clement Street in the Central Richmond in 2016 — and expanding onto a patio not long after — Boris Nemchenok and Brandon Gillis’ Italian bistro matched a few pizzas and a few pastas to a strong wine list, buffeted by approachable dishes like suppli al telephono, a stack of arancini whose gooey innards are supposed to resemble a stretching landline cord when you bite into them. It won attention for its Bay Area wallpaper print — with icons like E40 and the BART logo — plus a pizza oven that’s tiled almost like a lusterless disco ball.

Now Fiorella has replicated but not cloned itself on Polk Street in Russian Hill, a neighborhood that’s long on places to eat well but short on this kind of focused, neither-upscale-nor-casual environment. The same wallpaper is there right alongside the cacio e pepe, but the decor is moodier (which is maybe why a couple was making out at their table one recent Tuesday evening). Clearly, the formula is working, so they only needed minor tweaks to accommodate the west-facing space. And the staff appear to be having fun — not in the sense of goofing off, but of enjoying their work in a way that makes their colleagues enjoy theirs, too.

The main draw is still pizza, of which there are nine. A burrata pie with high-acid D.O.P. cherry tomatoes and a full blob of Angelo and Franco burrata in the center is the most architectural. You’re given a slicer to cut it yourself, because the sanctity of the burrata is paramount, and in doing so you’ll probably feel like you’re defiling a work of art. But it is a beautiful pizza, with the bare minimum of sauce and enough blackened warts that you can be sure Fiorella bans roller dockers from anywhere near that wood-fired oven. They’re prominent enough that they seem to give these pizzas individual personalities, like the speckles on a ladybug. You get a very Tri-State Area complement of parmesan and red pepper shakers, plus a cruet of chili oil, but this is a circumstance where restraint is best, except for the bites where the crust is almost cracker-crisp.

Maybe an even better option is the clam-and-chilies pie with fior di latte mozzarella, which is garlicky and slightly lemony and seems to channel the bite of anchovies somehow. Having ceased to be a regional oddity limited to New Haven, Conn., it’s also good with San Francisco Brewing Co.’s Pale Ale — which just so happens to be called Polk Street.

A menu full of suggested add-ons can make people feel quasi-nickel-and-dimed, but that’s not the case here. The options are a little more imaginative than most, from wood-roasted mushrooms to sopressata piccante to a good old egg. If you want to keep your pizza a little more austere, veer toward antipasti — like the asparagus that arrives with a poached egg which coats the stalks in yolk without interfering with the work of the charred spring allium vinaigrette (which is much chunkier than its name suggests, with a baby-food consistency).

Wood-fired octopus, its tentacles arranged so that they looked like segments of a monster’s tail breaching the surface of Loch Ness, was lovely on its own, although the pistachio-and-olive puree is a little aggressive. A superior baby fava fritto with cacio e pepe seasoning was one of the most lightly fried things I’ve ever eaten, young enough that the shells were intact.

Among executive chef Eli Franco’s pastas, the spring ricotta cavatelli wraps itself most strongly in the season. Rather than the usual broccoli rabe, this buttery bowl of dense, comforting semolina pasta contains black trumpet mushrooms, asparagus, Parmigiano, and mint. The other three pastas — cacio e pepe, linguine vongole, and bucatini alla pomodoro — hew to the eternal flavor combinations. But the classics are classics for a reason, and with this second location, Fiorella is set to join them.

Fiorella, 2238 Polk St., 415-829-7097 or fiorella-sf.com/russian-hill

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