Living in the Bay Area and dealing with daily life, you can forget sometimes that San Francisco is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. I'm still faintly surprised when I'm confronted with shelves of Alcatraz and Golden Gate tchotchkes in every neighborhood Walgreens, but there they are. And the people who buy them come here in droves, patiently lining up for the little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars.
And they all have to eat somewhere, and several times a day. As we know, San Francisco is perhaps as famous for its food as for its picturesque location, but not every visitor has the desire (or the funds) to eat in the fancy, big-ticket places, or research the smaller places with good value. The Internet, of course, has helped: I read countless requests from people planning to visit SF on Chowhound, and often the replies are exceedingly helpful.
It was the Internet, in fact, which led me to dinner recently. I was responding to an e-mail query about inexpensive kid-friendly places to eat in the Union Square area, and I sent off a response that included Dottie's True Blue Cafe and Sears Fine Foods, among others. I did a little further search of my own, and came up with enthusiastic comments about Puccini and Pinetti, a place I'd passed scores of times without really being drawn to it. Open for a dozen years in the Kimpton Monticello Inn, it was greeted with pleasure when it opened, but it's been below the radar for a long time.
Recently the restaurant debuted a new chef, Keira Moritz, from a Kimpton Group restaurant in Denver, who was quoted as planning to focus more on local and seasonal ingredients (now that's San Francisco!). I headed over for Sunday dinner with my sister and nephew after catching Bee Movie at the multiplex across the street, pausing to admire the break-dancers entertaining at the corner of Powell and Market.
The corner location has big windows looking out on Cyril Magnin, with a cafe-bar area up front, an open grill kitchen with counter seating, and a choice of booths or wooden tables and chairs. There's a bright, angular, impressionistic mural of San Francisco on the back wall. We're immediately led to a comfy booth, and the hostess has brought a box of crayons and one of those colorable paper placemats with mazes and drawings that include disguised objects. I get a sense that our server is less than thrilled with her table of two women and a child when we ask for tap water and appear to pass on the option of wine. But by the time she returns we've changed our minds and ordered a glass of Riesling and one of Valpolicella, and she perks up, especially as we're ordering a lot of food.
We start by sharing the winter antipasti assortment, a prettily arranged plate with three scoops of dip in the tricolor of the Italian flag: one flavored with basil pesto, another with red pepper, and the third so mild that I think it's cream cheese blended with a little goat cheese, although the menu says it's marinated feta. There's also a half-head of roasted garlic, a tangle of good thin-sliced bresaola, a heap of mixed olives along with strips of sun-dried tomatoes garnished with several huge stemmed caperberries, several dates stuffed with almonds and dotted with ricotta, and some thin toasted crostini tucked in. The candied Italian fruit mentioned on the menu has failed to make the plate. But it's fun to toy with the various items, though nothing save the bresaola is stellar. It all feels a little Rachael Ray: Italian lite through an American filter.
We continue with another shared dish, the spaghetti and meatballs, described as a P&P signature dish. It's one of five pastas offered, two of which feature truffle oil (mushroom-sage fettuccine, and pasta envelopes filled with potato in mushroom cream), along with capellini with tomatoes, basil, garlic, mozzarella, and Parmesan; and the oddly-named P&P Pot Pie, which is chicken penne pasta with Gorgonzola cream under a toasted Parmesan crust. There's more meat than spaghetti in our shared dish: three big meatballs and a lot of Bolognese meat sauce. Six-year-old Ben likes the meatballs: "You gotta write about these!" It's just an okay dish, and it makes us think longingly of Bolognese sauces we like better: my mother's, definitely American-style; and Alice Waters', a classic version enriched with cream.
For secondi, Wendy has chosen pan-seared sea scallops with an asparagus and prosciutto risotto topped with shaved Parmesan, surrounded by a pale lake of sweet pea nage. The scallops are too lightly cooked, the risotto bland and clunky, and yet the sauce tastes surprisingly springlike, with a true pea flavor. It almost redeems the dish. My veal piccata is buried in a sour-tasting, gloppy lemon-caper-butter sauce that feels cornstarchy, atop bland mashed potatoes improved somewhat by being blended with (not enough) leaves of fresh spinach.
Ben's choice, when his favorite Italian dish of gnocchi is not on the menu, is the big hit: build-your-own pizza from the kids' menu, which also features macaroni and cheese and spaghetti with butter and cheese. You get unbaked pizza dough on its own little round baking pan at the table, along with containers of tomato sauce, cheese, and your choice of additional ingredients. Ben chose prosciutto, fresh tomatoes, and sun-dried tomatoes. Constructing the pizza was a delight, both for him and for the proud mom and aunt watching as he carefully spread the sauce, sprinkled the cheese, and draped the strips of ham (the sun-dried tomatoes went home with the left-over antipasti). Then it was taken away and baked. It wasn't the most delicious pizza I've ever had, but it was one of the prettiest.
The counter seating made me long for Vanessi's, a late, lamented San Francisco landmark joint that rewarded both tourists and locals with hearty pastas and grilled steaks and chops thrown together before their hungry eyes. As the table of four Spanish-speaking guys behind us left and were replaced by three Slavs, I remembered the time Wendy and I arrived at our carefully chosen restaurant in Florence, only to find it inexplicably closed. Hungry and tired, we stumbled into an uninspiring, touristy-looking trattoria across the square with three prix-fixe menus posted in the window, and had one of the best meals of our ten days in Tuscany. A tourist's dumb luck.
As we left the considerable remains of the chocolate-cherry-port crème brûlée, which tasted of none of its ingredients, I thought of the run of brilliant Italian places that have opened in San Francisco recently: Perbacco, La Ciccia, Bar Bambino, Farina, SPQR. Puccini and Pinetti is charging as much or more as they do (mains run $20-$29), and for much less ambitious and interesting food. But it's located in a nest of hotels, and finding the other places requires a little research, reservations, and transportation. More than dumb luck.