Sometimes a restaurant that's been around a while becomes as comfortable as an old shoe. But other times it can feel as worn out as one.
Caffe delle Stelle is in the Civic Center/Hayes Valley neighborhood that boasts a number of restaurants expert in getting their dinner guests fed and in their opera, symphony, or lecture seats before curtain time (and, in many cases, welcome them back afterward for a snack or dessert). It opened, in another part of the same building whose corner it now occupies, about 16 years ago, a server estimates, moving into its current space about eight years ago. The decor is timeless and comforting: The walls are painted a deep red and show off framed Italian advertising posters, there's white linen on the wooden tables and chairs, and stacked on various antique sideboards and dressers used as room dividers are wine bottles, Italian boxed pasta, and canned goods. The atmosphere is homey, just a little rustic, a welcoming oasis, and less intimidating than its neighbors, which include Absinthe and the Hayes Street Grill across the street and Jardinière and Citizen Cake a couple of blocks away.
Caffe delle Stelle is less pricey than those places, too, and except on weekend nights, it's usually not necessary to make a reservation. You can fall by on a whim. In recent weeks, I dined there twice, both times with friends who identify as vegetarians (though one will eat fish from time to time). In addition to the one-page regular menu listing five antipasti, five insalate, eight pasta dishes, and half a dozen secondi, or meat and fish entrees, there's a printed list of additional dinner specials (including a Menu Fisso, your choice of main course, with soup or salad and a glass of wine, a soft drink, or coffee, for $24.95).
The midweek night that Frances and I were there, we ate early, and there were only two other couples in the place. Soft Italian bread, a soupy housemade dip of tomatoes and garlic, and a big pitcher of mineral water with a thick slice of orange floating in it was brought to the table. We sipped glasses of prosecco, and shared our two starters. The crespella was a polenta crepe filled with spinach, chopped zucchini, scallions, and roasted corn, in a creamy basil sauce. An unusual dish, it was light, full of flavor, altogether yummy. (It's also available, in a larger portion, as an entree, and I found myself wishing I'd ordered the larger portion as a starter. It disappeared from our plates too quickly!) The fritto misto featured lightly, almost under-fried calamari, both tentacles and rings, along with artichokes and broccoli, parts of the broccoli almost carbonized, and was served with a very timid garlic aioli that could have used a major infusion of the bulb.
Frances went on to a huge portion of the tortellini della casa, little cheese-filled tortellini in a thick though not overpowering Gorgonzola sauce, woven with snippets of arugula, mushrooms, and peas, and dotted with a few crunchy toasted almonds. I had hesitated between the fish of the day, petrale sole, and the maiale, a pork dish. Our friendly server, who had made us feel as though he was complicit in our evening and eager for us to have a good dinner and a good time, made them both sound good but steered me toward the pork. It was an extremely simple but very rich dish, two fat little chunks of sautéed tenderloin topped with a lot of crumbled Gorgonzola and toasted pine nuts, and sided with sautéed zucchini. I couldn't even finish half of it. I took the rest of it to go, along with some of Frances' pasta and the calamari starter.
For dessert, we shared a semifreddo, a chilled chocolate amaretto loaf that fulfilled its part cake, part ice cream role excellently, and lingered over coffee and comfortable conversation. Again we couldn't finish the generous serving. We hadn't had a stellar meal, but certainly a pleasant one, made more pleasant by the caring service.
A couple of weeks later, I returned with Lee for a Sunday-night supper. The sunny, warm day had turned unexpectedly chilly, and we weren't really adequately dressed for the winds that whipped through us as we walked to the restaurant. It was dusk, and the room looked warm and cheery as we approached; the big windows showed lots of people, including a couple of big parties tucked in tables in the back.
A cascade of tiny disappointments began when we tried to order some prosecco, again, which Lee and I had drunk a lot of during a shared week in Italy the year before, and were told that the most recent shipment had all arrived flat. I was perplexed, because the restaurant features two different bottlings, but settled for a glass of California rosé. It wasn't the server's fault that she had to tell us that the kitchen was out of arugula when Lee tried to order the arugula salad as a starter, or that she also had to reply in the negative when I asked if half-orders of pasta were available as starters. But I did feel neglected when two requests for tap water instead of the gratis fizzy water were ignored.
Spinach or baby greens were offered as an alternative to the arugula, and Lee chose the greens, which were then simply dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and presented with sliced mushrooms and shaved pecorino romano. I started with pappardelle al sugo, a tangle of the soft, wide-ribboned pasta tossed with a discreet amount of a bolognese sauce made with crumbles of sausage and red wine. It was tasty, satisfying, an easy dish to eat, and I found myself helplessly finishing it, knowing I would be a little too full before the main courses arrived. (It was the first plate of food I'd had here that I managed to finish.)
Lee had no problems, either, finishing every bite of her orrechiette rustica, a plate entirely covered with a layer of the small ear-shaped pasta that had been baked with sage, chopped potatoes, and fontina to a golden-brown crustiness. It was a sturdy, earthy, interesting dish, as good in its way as the vegetable-filled polenta crespella, a lighter and more sophisticated offering, had been. Once I'd tried my petrale sole, called soglioletta, two filets of the fish sauteed with olive oil and lemon, I wasn't sorry that I had stuffed myself a little too freely with pasta: The fish was mushy and dull, though it came with bright-tasting spinach and good, airy mashed potatoes.
But my spirits rose over two excellent desserts, a massive yet light cakelike square of tiramisu, the layered ladyfingers, espresso, and mascarpone cheese covered with a custard sauce, and a budino di pane, warm bread pudding made with panettone and sided with a ball of vanilla ice cream. The comforting sweets went a long way toward erasing some of the discomfort I felt over our uneven dinner. But despite the pleasant room and the convenient location, I felt no special urge to return.