Family Business

Ristorante Marcello is a family restaurant — and because in San Francisco “family” is a word that's forever being redefined, the restaurant's crowd is diverse to the point of entropy. Except that everyone's having a good time talking, drinking, and enjoying the carefully prepared food from a menu that's mostly traditional Italian, with a few local flourishes.

The restaurant feels like a memory from Middle America. With its white stucco walls and steel-and-vinyl chairs, it's cheerfully unpretentious in a supper-club way, but there's also a hint of attractive stiffness to the place, a respect for tradition and family that seems very Italian. If the restaurant were a shirt, it would be a lightly starched button-down with the collar open.

Our Sunday-evening crowd included a young couple in their 20s; a pair of men who seemed to be gay; a family party of at least half a dozen (including a tiny little girl, who danced like a sprite among the tables, and a wizened old man who, stunned with martinis, glared emptily across the dining room); and a birthday table where song rose around a trick candle that burned like a Fourth of July sparkler.

San Franciscans might be diverse — a veritable Balkans of ethnicities, languages, cultures, and lives — but if the city has a unifying principle it's good food. And Ristorante Marcello has good food, happily proving that the city's food culture does not end at Twin Peaks.

Warm sourdough bread arrived immediately, along with pats of lightly salted butter and glasses of water. The staff had an open friendliness that reminded me of service at restaurants in smaller cities, where small talk is a way of life. The waiters were less perfunctory than they can be in the city's eastern quarters, but they didn't let chat get in the way of the business at hand.

Opinions at our table varied as to the first courses. The escargots de Bourgogne ($5.50 for about six snails) were served in their shells, on a specially indented plate. They were garnished with a basil-garlic mixture that looked to me like lawn clippings and left a slightly greasy residue in my mouth. The man who ordered them, on the other hand, loved them.

Nobody else at the table thought as highly as I did of the papardelle with rabbit-mushroom sauce ($5.50), which we ordered from the nightly specials menu. Papardelle are wide enough to resemble lasagna noodles, and the tomato-based sauce was meaty-rich with the rabbit. (Rabbit's flavor is often likened to chicken's, but in this dish it added a heft like red meat's.) Here and there bits of mushroom drifted inconspicuously.

Prawns Marcello ($6.95) earned universal approbation, even though there were only three of them. The prawns had been breaded before being doused with a basil cream sauce and then thoroughly broiled, until the breading turned crusty. The prawns themselves were cooked through but still tender, and beneath the crust the basil cream had formed a thick sauce with a concentrated flavor.

While waiting for the main courses we repeatedly heard an ominous rumbling, as if the world's largest clothes dryer were giving its death rattle in the basement. But it was merely the N-Judah train plying its way between Ocean Beach and the Embarcadero. San Franciscans are preternaturally sensitive to rumblings in the earth, and each time the train shuddered past, there was a brief damping of the festive noise.

Scaloppine of veal con funghi ($16.75 from the family-style menu, which includes a bowl of minestrone and a side order of penne with a Bolognese sauce) swam in a mushroom ragout that was heavy with a sweetish red wine or port. It needed salt, and even then it tasted more of the wine than the mushrooms. On the side were servings of sauteed potatoes (tender, but all the taste was in the browned edges) and slices of zucchini that had been cooked to the point of mushiness.

The spaghetti alla carbonara ($9.75) was, my friend admitted, tasty, but he thought the chunks of bacon were too small (mainly a textural criticism). He also would have preferred a little more cream to make the sauce soupier (there was virtually no liquid remaining on the plate by the time he'd finished), but then he's long been an admirer of Julia Child, who is not one to stint on fat.

Local kitchens of every stripe are cooking salmon with distinction, and Ristorante Marcello's is no exception. The specials menu included a salmon fillet in champagne sauce ($14.95). The cooking method was not specified, but the fish was moist enough to suggest sauteing. The nicely thickened sauce was flecked with chopped herbs, but it tasted chiefly of champagne — no small feat, because the taste of champagne, like that of extra-virgin olive oil, can suffer in the heat of cooking.

Europeans might be satisfied to end a filling meal with fresh fruit, but Americans must have their fix of sweets, and the restaurant offers an ample selection. (It offers fresh fruit, too.) The kitchen understands that cr�me caramel ($3.25) can be pretty dull, and so it leavens its version with orange zest, which brings a clear, fresh note to what would otherwise have been a shapeless sweetness.

The chocolate mousse ($3.25) was good though not special (it tasted as though it had been made with cocoa powder). And the sacripantina ($4.50), a white cake with white frosting that the restaurant obtains from the New Geneva bakery on Ocean Avenue, was sweet but not much else — what an ordinary creme caramel would be like if it were a cake.

Still, we finished off all three. (As Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, once said, in a different context: Don't listen to what we say, watch what we do.) Ristorante Marcello serves food that's meant to be enjoyed, not studied — and it's easy to enjoy. The restaurant may not strive to be on the cutting edge of culinary developments, but it thrives by satisfying the San Francisco family — an ancient institution that's also, in its countless modern permutations, thriving.

Ristorante Marcello, 2100 Taraval, S.F., 665-1430. Mon-Sat 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun 4-10 p.m.

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