Palio Diet: A Classic Italian Joint Modernizes

A 30-year-old ristorante, the former Palio d'Asti, can’t seem to free itself from some attachments to the past.

Meatballs and pancetta-wrapped shrimp. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

Of all the many, many things that I hate, Frank Sinatra is way up there. Not as high as Howard Schultz or mayonnaise, but up there. I hate his corny smugness and I hate his cocksure smarminess and mostly I hate music that sounds a little bit like jazz only with all the sex and danger sucked out of it.

While I freely concede that this is a subjective opinion, the part of my Frank-ophobia that has at least some basis in empirical reality is that you never, ever hear any of Sinatra’s deep cuts. The man had a 50-plus-year career and yet it’s always the same six or eight songs, over and over, with maybe his late-in-life duet with Anita Baker (“Witchcraft”) if you’re lucky. Consequently, the act of playing putting some threadbare Sinatra song on a playlist feels less about the enjoyment of music per se and more about the establishment of a particular nonthreatening atmosphere.

This is the thought that kept occurring to me every time I ate at Palio, formerly Palio d’Asti, an almost-30-year-old Italian restaurant north of Downtown. Revamped and refurbished, it’s giving itself a small hernia to move with the times, but it seems somewhat caught in-between, and when it doubt about how to proceed, it sometimes defaults to a quasi-Buca di Beppo schtick. Hence the lowest-common-denominator soundtrack.

But the improvements are undeniable. Gone are the 12-by-12 floor tiles and the equine, Eadweard Muybridge-esque wall design. In their place are some signifiers of quote-unquote hipness, a well-executed faux ghost ad and an amari caddy bolted to a pillar. The cocktails, particularly the almondine aperitif Underground City (white truffle-infused scotch, Nardini amaro, Nardini Mandorla, white truffle salt) balance a masculine elegance against ingenuity. And the front-facing lounge, greatly enlarged, is very handsome, without creating dead space in what used to be a 200-seat dining room.

To hang on for almost three decades, Palio has clearly cultivated a loyal stable of regulars, and that is no small feat. Many of them are undoubtedly business lunchers, while others are devoted fans of Italian dishes that don’t hail from one set region — i.e., the banishment of that “d’Asti.” While no one would expect 23-year-old servers with lip rings, Palio remains tethered to the old-school in presentation and feel. A plate of octopus with eggplant caponata, ceci beans, and squid ink aioli — specifically denoted as a “Palio classic” — was a masterpiece of textures and a steal at $17, although it looked like 1993 incarnate. By contrast, the cocoa pappardelle with wild boar was imaginative and layered, the chocolate in the pasta layering in a dose of bitterness. And the Pollo at Mattone, a half-chicken roasted under a brick with plenty of wilted radicchio, was deeply acidic and pungent.

But meatballs and panchetta-wrapped shrimp came out lukewarm, and the cheese and charcuterie selection is the same parade of Mt. Tam-and-La-Quercia you can get anywhere. Its crust was “red 100 emoji,” but the asparagus pizza was nearly flavorless, while the funghi pizza tasted overpoweringly of garlic. Although nearby-ish North Beach would engulf such a restaurant, Palio’s neither-here-nor-there location is almost certain to be a major hindrance in winning over new hearts. “Just a Gigolo” won’t help matters.

Another issue is sloppiness. Visiting alone a little after 6 p.m. for a glass of wine and some happy hour bites, I was told happy hour had ended. (It runs until seven.) A staffer corrected the bartender, who said she hadn’t been informed, but then they were out of the glass of wine that I ordered, as well as the recommended substitute, once the last of the bottle was drained. Then he kitchen was also out of one of the three bites I’d picked. The bartender comped that half-glass as anyone would, and referred to it with a smile as “thinking wine” for me to enjoy while I came up with a Plan C. But I sat there the rest of the time sensing that I’d become my own radioactive bad-luck charm.

Although three hiccups at once is unusual, such setbacks aren’t so bad. More often than not, they’re illustrative of how restaurants respond to minor oopsies. (Recovery is always possible, and then some!) But maybe as a corollary to the maxim of “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” stuff seems to go awry when things are slow. And things were pretty slow: a host in a perfectly dimpled necktie who paced to work off some nervous energy, an unattended pizza oven with a “DANGER MEN COOKING” sign attached, Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” taking over. The cavernousness becomes apparent, with sections of the kitchen occupied by glassed-in stations that feel things a consultant insisted were trendy. Clearly, the impetus for all of this was avoiding Yelp reviews that use the word “dated.” But instead of doing things its own way, Palio did it “My Way.”

Palio, 640 Sacramento St.,  415-395-9800 or paliosf.com

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