The artisanal-food revolution is the fetishization of the human hand. Deindustrializing certain components of food production has been key to reinvigorating our love of real food in what’s otherwise an inglorious and hollow McWorld. It’s a renaissance that could be captured in image of 10 flour-covered fingers in a mixing bowl.
So we have A Mano, the latest restaurant by Adriano Paganini’s Back of the House group, which owns Delarosa, Uno Dos Tacos, Lolinda, and other concept restaurants. Italian for “by hand,” it’s a pizza-and-pasta-heavy spot in Hayes Valley run by Executive Chef Freedom Rains, and it’s very much at home in 2017 San Francisco, from the seasonality to the industrial interior. But I think we can expect more from this hand.
Antipasti were mostly quite good. The fritto misto ($15) was greaseless and light, its fried lemon wheels adding a good dose of brightness without becoming that thing you start picking out after eating one. I liked the $9 Tuscan liver mousse’s sieved smoothness, but I wasn’t wild about the kumquat mostarda on top. (It was probably the one element across all visits that I wished had been toned down. Good old caramelized onions would have worked better.) And while the tomato-based sauce under the fontina arancini ($11) was tangy and acidic, the risotto was under-salted and the balls lacked finishing salt on top.
If graded on a bell curve, the pastas clustered at the top of the bell and forward. Agnolotti dal plin with roast chicken ($14) was as undersalted as the arancini, but the the tagliatelle with pesto, pea, and pine nuts ($15) was garlicky and assertive. Although the substitution of pancetta for guanciale smells of calculation — maybe to avoid any “I’m sorry, guanciale is what now?” conversations — I was particularly fond of the bucatini all’amatriciana ($14), which had a rambunctious quality. After this, why ever settle for ordinary spaghetti and red sauce?
Pizzas were stronger still, the crusts full of chew. The hot and zesty salsiccia (with chili sausage, tomato, provolone, olives, and red onion, $15) was my favorite, but I have to applaud the one with summer squash, zucchini blossoms, stracciatella, vidalia onions, and lemon ($16) for its internal coherence and for staying sturdily intact.
Overall the best thing was a red-wine-braised short-rib over polenta ($23). Apart from meat that fell off the bone with a wave of the hand, the polenta was so full of caramel-corn flavor that it could have been a standalone vegetarian dish. Leavening the sweetness were well-chosen quarters of pearl onion and deep-green broccoli spigarello, which functioned like load-bearing columns.
The dish was such a delight that it inadvertently revealed A Mano’s lack of boldness elsewhere. The Italian-heavy yet sadly Lambrusco-free wine list is fine, but many of the cocktails feel like retreads — although at their best, as with the Avazione (gin, Maraschino, lemon, violet, and soda, $12) they’re pleasingly summery. Dessert borders on uninspired, though. A Nutella sundae ($10) was shamelessly big and gratifying, but the buttermilk panna cotta was lifeless in taste and in its yogurt-like texture alike.
A Mano has other strengths. The pricing is great, and the pasta was well-cooked every time. (I think I’ve concluded that bucatini is my favorite variety because the hole running in the center of the noodle gives it the surface area to cook more evenly throughout.) And considering that the building whose ground floor it occupies — 450 Haight St. — describes its residential units as “new sustainable luxury condos [that] sit at the heart of the bustling artistic neighborhood,” eating at A Mano didn’t leave me in despair over San Francisco’s occasionally soul-crushing lack of imagination. Little touches like the diagonal table positions and the asymmetrical wooden screen that covers the ceiling-mounted HVAC help it sidestep that cookie-cutter industrial feel. I’m happy to see an almost-100-person dining room be packed on a Monday night and late on a Saturday, and for a crowded space full of hard surfaces, volume levels are great. (Being within walking distance of venues from the Symphony to Rickshaw Stop yet not taking reservations feels odd, however.)
The main issue, though, is that A Mano is merely good. It feels as though this concept has been done before, a quarter-century ago with Olive Garden. And I realize what it means to bring up Olive Garden. Aside from New York Times columnist David Brooks’ condescending references to the (nonexistent) salad bars at Applebee’s, that punching bag of a chain has been more of a lightning rod for Blue America’s snobby bafflement over Red America’s eating habits than any other restaurant corporation in its category. Owing to sales declines, Olive Garden has gotten sucked up into the “Millennials are destroying everything consumer capitalism holds dear” pipe, but most of the thinkpieces have been brazenly classist.
I’m not looking to smack Olive Garden around. And I want to be crystal-clear on this point: A Mano is superior to Olive Garden at every point, and there aren’t gimmicks like unlimited breadsticks. (The fritto misto takes palpable pains not to be ordinary fried calamari, too.) With that said, this comparison isn’t as much about the quality as about the self-limiting structure. Back of the House, a company known for fast-casual, compact-menu places like Super Duper and The Bird has succeeded with its more upscale ventures. Two-year-old Belga and its next-door-neighbor Flores are the best examples, but even places that aren’t framed tightly around a particular cuisine — think Starbelly or Beretta — have balanced approachability and adventure for years.
Rains is an experienced Italian hand — if you will — having worked at Incanto, flour + water, and elsewhere within Back of the House. So it’s not like he’s being stifled or shoehorned here. But why is A Mano’s menu limited almost entirely to pizza and pasta, especially when the best item by far was a short rib? I get that those are the things made “by hand,” but just as Olive Garden’s 800 or so locations are but a chunk of corporate parent Darden Restaurants’ holdings — which also includes LongHorn Steakhouse and, formerly, Red Lobster — A Mano feels as though it’s been slotted into a niche in Back of the House’s portfolio. In other words, the kitchen feels like it’s been deliberately handicapped so as not to make waves within the overall company and in a way that Back of the House’s other full-service places do not. A few more rustic peasant dishes from rural Italy would be great, along with more (and more adventurous) pizzas and desserts. Right now, as one dining mate put it, A Mano is Castelvetrano Olive Garden.
So let’s see some more waves. Let Freedom rain.
A Mano, 450 Hayes St., 415-506-7401 or amanosf.com