Beretta: Cocktails, pizza, and a wall of noise on Valencia

When we settled in at Beretta and perused the menu, I recognized its contents immediately. It's the very model of a modern pizzeria. There's an alluring and simple combination of small-plate antipasti, with vegetable dishes followed by a few fish offerings and an assortment of salumi; a few salads, a dozen pizzas, and several risottos; and one different main dish a day. I was reminded immediately of Mario Batali's popular and influential Otto in New York, which opened in 2003, where I first tasted lardo, and the wonderful Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, a collaboration among Batali, Nancy Silverton, and Joseph Bastianich, which followed in 2007. I love both places, and there couldn't be a better first thought upon opening a menu.

At Beretta, however, there's almost an equal emphasis on cocktails, drawn from an list of 15 special drinks with names like the Dolores Park Swizzle and the Rattlesnake. The atmosphere is clublike, too, with people clustered around a thin communal table that duplicates the height of the long bar it's set opposite. There are a few wooden tables with aluminum chairs clustered near the entrance, and more huddled near the kitchen's open pass-through in the rear.

When we entered the dark place, late on a weeknight, we felt we were entering a successful cocktail party that had been going on long enough for the alcohol to kick in. The noise was palpable. Beretta doesn't take reservations for parties of fewer than six, but staff will put you on a list if you call ahead. We had done so, and we were led directly through dense thickets of ebullient standees to a table at a banquette in front of the kitchen.

The three of us shared a pleasant meal, although not everything was equally successful. We tried earthy, sweet roasted beets dotted with ricotta salata, slightly underdone broccolini amped up with spicy bits of red peperoncino and garlic, and crunchy crostini topped with a dark and unfortunately bitter chicken liver paste alla Toscana ($6 each). I would order only the beets again.

We shared a mixed plate of five salumi ($15) from local salumeria Boccalone: lonza (pork loin), soppressata (spicy coarse salami), prosciutto di Parma, mortadella (soft and pillowy), and lardo (cured back fat, aka prosciutto bianco). It was a well-balanced assortment of textures and flavors, accompanied by some bright pickled vegetables (giardiniera), and was the single best plate of food on the table.

From the dozen pizzas on offer, we chose a simple margherita ($11), which we made lusher by choosing burrata ($3 extra) over ordinary mozzarella, and one intriguingly topped with hot salami, coppa, tomato, diavolicchio (hot peppers), and pecorino ($15). The crust was good, but it wasn't the kind that makes you sit up and pay attention. I sipped an Improved Whiskey Cocktail ($9), a take-off on a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned: rye, Dubonnet, absinthe, maraschino, and bitters, which seemed to be a favorite ingredient of the bar.

The very-thin-crusted pizzas were set atop little stands, their toppings scattered delicately in the Italian style. I'd characterize them as good pizzas, not great ones. But even a great pizza would have found it difficult to distract me from the headache-inducing, noisy gaiety we were engulfed in. Conversation was difficult.

We shared Beretta's version of an affogato ($8), good vanilla gelato drenched in espresso with a cocktaily glazing of Amaro Averna, an Italian liqueur with an edge that echoes the bitters Beretta's bartenders are so fond of.

When we left, my ears were ringing like they do after escaping clubland. I decided Beretta was too hot not to cool down, so I gave it a few months before another visit, this time early on a Saturday evening. We called, about twenty minutes before arrival, and were again lucky. Every other seat was full, but magically the crowds parted and a table appeared, tucked around a corner from the bar.

It was in an awkward location — our server had to edge between two other tables in order to deliver our food — but it seemed to be the quietest spot in the house. Beretta was just as crowded as it had been the first time.

The four of us shared tasty but heavy meatballs in a fresh tomato sauce ($12), a simple arugula and fennel salad topped with shaved Parmesan ($7 for a small size, which was actually ample; $11 for large), and a nicely fried fritto misto di pesce, mostly calamari with a few shrimp ($13). We tried the pizza topped with panna, spring onions, and lovely crumbled fennel sausage ($13), my favorite of the pizzas I'd had here; and another less successfully topped with sliced potato, rosemary, bitter radicchio, and gorgonzola dolce ($13). It was too rich, too heavy, and had too much rosemary.

Saturday's special was bistecca ($18). A more thoughtful or less harried server would have told us that it came sided with a big thatch of the same arugula and fennel salad we'd already ordered, opening the way for us to try a different salad, perhaps the warm radicchio and escarole with pancetta ($7 small, $11 large). The crusty steak was chewy, full of flavor, and entirely winning.

We also shared an asparagus risotto ($12), served with a big rich lump of robiola cheese melting atop. The grains of rice were still a little al dente, several minutes away from achieving the creaminess of a perfect risotto.

Tonight, something seemed off in the bar. We weren't thrilled with our cocktails (all $9): an Agricole Mule (rum, lime, ginger, mint), a Gaby de Lys (gin, orgeat, absinthe, bitters), and a Monte Carlo (rye, Benedictine, bitters, orange). We switched the drinks around among us, trying to find a happy home, but without success. The orderer of the Monte Carlo said it tasted somewhat insecticidal. We were happier with our desserts, especially the lush vanilla gelato ($7) topped with a slick of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. It was much more interesting than the dense chocolate and pear budin ($8).

We exited through a side door and discovered a quiet little patio where people were enjoying supper in the still-light evening. Again, my ears were ringing. Beretta, noise and all, apparently suits its clientele to perfection. But not for me. I'd go along with Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.”

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