At Lindsay and Michael Tusk's three-year-old Cotogna (the rustic sister to the next door and more upscale Quince), it's hard to miss the massive "porchetta della casa" rotating on its spit in the wood-fired oven. That huge hunk of pork and fat might be the most obvious contender, but the vegetarian-friendly pastas also deserve to be the symbol of the restaurant. Cotogna's a wonderful choice for vegetarians and vegans.
Michael Tusk is a maestro with pasta dough, so that is the menu category to gravitate to at Cotogna. Among the six selections, half are vegetarian. Right now you'll find a stellar casoncelli ($18), small ribbons that look like tootsie rolls in pasta form. The casoncelli first is stuffed with a roasted beet and mascarpone filling, then glazed with butter and poppy seeds. The dozen bleeding purple casoncelli then are showered with freshly grated horseradish and smoked ricotta. Tender dough, alluring smoke, the zip of the garnishes, and the beet's fruity sweetness create an intense multi-flavor dynamic that beet dishes like borscht seldom achieve.
Vegans aren't forgotten, and don't have to call in advance for modifications. Each pasta listed on Cotogna's menu is made with egg, but fortunately, vegans can order off-menu from either the Verrigni Gold Die Spaghetti or Trofie pastas on the tasting menus next door at Quince. Pizzas can always be made vegan.
The headliner antipasti is vegetarian courtesy of the signature sformato (a savory soufflé/custard dish that looks like panna cotta). Its vegetable flavoring changes seasonally, right now featuring artichoke. Antipasti usually aren't 100% vegan, but most can easily be adapted to be meat and dairy-free. The powerful umami of preserved anchovy added an exciting dimension to a cucumber and heirloom tomatoes salad, but the otherwise vegan combination of the late-season sweet cherry tomatoes and cucumber three ways (raw, grilled, and compressed in red wine vinegar) would have been excellent even if adapted without the anchovy. A menu section entirely devoted to giardino features four to five vegetarian side dishes, often featuring produce and even honey from the restaurant's rooftop garden and beehives. Vegan giardino dishes include wood oven-roasted Jimmy Nardello peppers and salt-baked potatoes.
This is what you hope for as a vegetarian: an assortment of options that are absolutely worth ordering, whether you're vegetarian or not.
Cotogna, 490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco; 775-8508.