Ciao, Italia


On Sept. 12, 2001, I sat down at the Splendido bar and had a drink. The beverage in question was a negroni, not only because the gin, Campari, and orange juice sounded soothing to my hangover-wracked body, but also because when I was in Venice in the waning days of 1990, I sipped a negroni every evening at a pocket-size bar across the street from my hotel. A negroni is so distinctive, its sharp sensations coming at you from several directions at once, that you never forget the taste of it.

I wasn't really in the mood to go out to eat, but the show must go on, or something. The bartender, a New Yorker, looked pretty shellshocked himself. We were far from the fantasy Italy that Splendido endeavors to evoke on a daily basis, but we did our best. The place has an undeniably handsome setting. Its interior is another one of Pat Kuleto's theme-park specials, this one a Mediterranean villa done up in rough beams and rustic accents. The 200-year-old olive-wood front doors look like they were hand-hewn by a conquistador. The 48-foot bar was handcrafted in Portugal; it's made almost entirely of pure pewter and weighs one ton. The central bread oven is a dramatic confluence of logs, bricks, prehistoric fish fossils, and what appears to be the aesthetically arranged rubble of some ancient civilization. Striking decorative touches surface in every room — wrought iron, marble, grape arbors, and vaulted brickwork — resulting in a succession of dining environments subtly distinct from one another. Handblown fixtures with amorphous shapes bathe you in soothing indirect light. Through the broad windows I could see a darkened Bay Bridge and flags flying at half-mast.

In its dozen years of existence the restaurant has rethought its menu a number of times, and a succession of chefs — Chris Majer, Giovanni Perticone, and Giorgio Albanese — has come and gone. Albanese has yet to be replaced by another executive chef, and as of this writing a team of sous-chefs is filling the vacuum with his culinary creations. The food is decidedly less rustic than its surroundings. Expect no abondanza (“abundance”), no mountains of steaming spaghetti; Splendido's status quo is carefully crafted delicacies of modest proportion showcased on large, gleaming platters edged in lobster reduction and basil oil.

Sometimes all of this fussiness makes for a confusing mouthful. The delicately flavored boneless quail, for instance, was stuffed with so much sausage meat — itself excessively doused in cinnamon — that we couldn't discern one flavor from another. The house-cured sea bass, on the other hand, was admirably simple in concept, with a pool of lemony olive oil and a few chunks of fennel its only distractions, but the fish itself was rubbery and overly fishy in flavor. The roasted lamb sirloin was also too chewy, but it possessed a pleasantly feral flavor accented with basil and thyme, and the grilled potatoes that shared its platter were a fine, crunchy foil for the meat. The best entree was the spinach-ricotta ravioli, a rich platter of nut-brown butter, pungent Parmesan, crisp little sage leaves, and the fresh, handmade, rough-hewn pasta you don't often find west of Ventimiglia.

The desserts were as memorable as that last entree. A marvelous combination of flavors and textures infused the warm apple torte: puréed almond, dried plums, a rich pool of caramel, and soft chunks of tart apple. The flourless chocolate cake featured a dense, truffle-esque consistency, the bite of candied orange peel, and a placid dollop of crème anglaise. It was delicious on several levels.

A second visit seemed to be in order — I didn't entirely trust my critical faculties that day — and when we sat down at our windowside table three days later we started with a serving of polenta. At Splendido, polenta is not a bowl of steaming mush, but rather a cupcake-size timbale of mousselike corn essence. It was crunchy outside and creamy and steamy within, but it was surrounded by so many random elements — artichoke, asparagus, and pearl onions — that our taste buds were in a state of bafflement. Conversely, the grilled-pear salad lacked flavor despite its many ingredients: The vinaigrette was nonexistent, the pears were mushy, and the Tête de Moine (a soft Swiss cheese) lacked pungency. Once again the saving grace was pasta, in this case cappellacci, a hat-shaped noodle as robust as the ravioli. Served on a bed of barely braised, garden-plucked baby vegetables, it came dusted with enough smoked mozzarella to give it a nice, subtle bite.

I was in the mood for a little show biz, and since the whole roasted fish of the day is filleted tableside we opted for that over the prosciutto-stuffed rabbit, the grilled tenderloin with balsamic infusion, or the daily risotto. Our branzino (sea bass) was indeed skillfully beheaded, un-tailed, and deboned until all that was left were several moist, steamy fillets of whitefish accented with a bracing salsa of capers, garlic, and thick, amber olive oil. The dish came with a separate platter of roasted potatoes and a healthy serving of the earthiest, most garlicky spinach I've enjoyed for a long time.

Dessert was another helping of that mood-altering chocolate and an interesting-in-concept parfait of caramelized pineapple, semifreddo, passion fruit essence, rum, and almond brittle. As expected, the latter was less interesting in its realization: The semifreddo was too icy, the pineapple too tough, and the whole thing too busy for its own good. Splendido's impressive wine list features a staggering 200 selections, half of them Italian, half Californian, and all of them chosen to complement the warm, sunny flavors of the food. It's a pricey list as well — the treasures include several bottles that top the $100 mark. Sixteen wines are available by the glass, 17 by the half-bottle. We didn't drink any wine, though. After dinner we walked along the waterfront and across Jackson Square to North Beach, ducked into a Columbus Avenue saloon, and settled in. It seemed as good a place to end up as any other.

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