Now that it unfortunately looks like the Dodgers will run away from the Giants with the NL West, we need a new rivalry to keep us busy. How about best Italian restaurant in San Francisco? Acquerello, Quince, Flour + Water, SPQR, A16, Delfina, La Ciccia, Cotogna, Perbacco, Barbacco, The Stinking Rose — all right, we'll never reach a consensus except with the last one. The others all consistently superb within their specific California-flecked Italian genres.
Instead, let’s dive into a niche pasta category that some of those Cal-Ital powerhouses are known for: Agnolotti dal plin. It's basically a smaller, more rectangular ravioli filled with roasted meats — traditionally leftovers — along with a little cabbage or other tender vegetables, then served with a sauce reduced from the bones of the same meat. This is your San Francisco Agnolotti dal Plin-Off between Cotogna and Perbacco! (Cue the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? theme.)
[jump] Agnolotti dal plin is a daily signature on the menu at Perbacco and probably the second most ordered dish on this stretch of California Street after Tadich’s hangtown fry. It’s almost always one of the pastas over at Cotogna.
The 9-year-old Perbacco from chef-owner Staffan Terje and owner-host-restaurateur-extraordinaire Umberto Gibin remains one of the anchors of the Bacco-Tadich-Mina Power Lunch Row, with spacious tables sporting white tablecloths. Every other diner wears a suit, but it’s more relaxed than fussy. The space is huge and holds almost 170 guests, slightly bigger than Cotogna and its elegant neighbor Quince combined.
Not too far away, 5-year-old Cotogna exhibits traits of this decade, such as butcher paper placemats, communal tables and a $4 charge for homemade cherry tomato-dotted focaccia (worth every cent), and an open kitchen with a roaring pizza oven and rotisserie, plus cocktail bar seating — very much the norm of this decade. So we’ve got our stage set with a very worthy and differing duo in Perbacco and Cotogna.
I guess the differences between our contenders start with the most rudimentary of contrasts: spelling. Cotogna’s menu calls it “agnolotti del plin.” Perbacco calls it “agnolotti dal plin.” Also, Perbacco offers a half version at $16 and the full is $20. Cotogna only serves one version and all pastas at the restaurant are $19. The half serving at Perbacco was basically as generous as the regular one at Cotogna. Neither cheats you on serving size, although I’d like them smaller so you could reasonably complete the proper antipasti- primi- secondi- dolci full meal. (You’d better be ravenous to try doing that on your own at either spot.)
Perbacco’s agnolotti are narrow and long, with each individual pasta slightly different in some nuanced form, showing they are clearly hand-made (here, imprecision is a very good trait). The filling combines roasted whole rabbit, pork shoulder, and veal, all removed from the bone, then ground finely with savoy cabbage, carrots, onions, and celery that were sautéed in butter. Chef Terje’s version of the accompanying sugo d’arrosto is a roasted meat jus that has become quite dark and is downright thick with intriguing sweet notes, very similar to a demi glace sauce. The dark sauce stains the agnolotti, creating a maroon color. You would swear red wine must be involved somewhere, but it isn’t. However, nutmeg is involved; it's the secret eyebrow-raiser humming underneath every bite. The real kicker is how al dente each agnolotti is — truly perky, with very detectable chewy tension. And I definitely could taste a little butter on the finish adding a little richness to the conclusion. Servers ask if you would like parmesan added on at the table. You do. Stellar all around.
Chef-owner Michael Tusk of Cotogna starts his version with very compact agnolotti, half the length and overall size of Perbacco’s. While Perbacco’s agnolotti are filled lengthwise with the ends twisted like Tootsie Rolls, Cotogna’s agnolotti are completely full, almost saturated. Cotogna’s meat filling is a little moister, kind of like a beef-and-vegetable stew, with the vegetable profile really shining through. Perbacco’s filling struck a barbecue-pulled pork chord that bordered on smoky. Chef Tusk employs a combination of veal, rabbit (no pork like Perbacco), the usual vegetables, and a touch of grana padano cheese for the filling. He reduces those veal and rabbit bones for the sugo d’arrosto. Like the filling, the sugo is lighter in color and more watery broth-like in consistency. It’s thin, not dense, a lot like the bone broth those Paleo dieters drink. And unlike the abstract art of Perbacco’s agnolotti shapes, Cotogna’s stay more uniform visually. I found myself eating two or three per forkful with their size. A little butter and shavings of grana padana nicely finishes the Cotogna composition. Terrific.
Must I really decide? Yes, I must if you make me. And I hear the big crowds pleading for my verdict.
I prefer the vegetable intensity of Cotogna’s filling, but the concentrated richness of Perbacco’s sugo and its pasta’s al dente texture are more to my liking, showing a little dolce vita creative angle. There is just a little more of a whimsical feel and a little more character in Perbacco’s agnolotti dal plin bowl. I really dig it. What is really fun, though, is how different these two interpretations are on the same subject. Much praise must go to both kitchens, but alas, Perbacco emerges victorious by the slimmest of parmesan threads on this glorious late summer day.
Now that we have our face-off's winner, we need to hunt down the other essential of a great Piemonte meal. Don’t worry, like with agnolotti dal plin, Cotogna and Perbacco have your Barolo needs covered, too. Boy am I read for my next trip to Italy.
Perbacco, 230 California, 415-955-0663.
Cotogna, 490 Pacific, 415-775-8508.