Just Press Pause, at San Mateo’s Pausa

Downtown San Mateo's fanciful Italian Pausa is beautiful inside and out.

Crises over over-ambition may have laid a few San Francisco restaurants low in the last year, but in San Mateo, where operating costs are a bit less exorbitant than they are here, ambition might not morph so easily into hubris. In the space that, for decades, had been the family-run Italian restaurant Spiedo, comes Pausa, a “bar & cookery” that combines house-made charcuterie, a wood-fired pizza oven, an all-Italian wine list, craft cocktails, and — just for a little extra flash — a “dough room” where breads and pastas get made.

By sticking to the suburbs, owner Steve Ugur and chef-owner Andrea Giuliani (who’d put in two years at Spiedo, more than a decade ago, before heading to other Italian restaurants across the Bay Area) might do what many esteemed chefs in San Francisco have tried and failed: Open an elaborate restaurant with lots of moving parts, and keep it open.

With occasional evidence that this two-month-old kitchen is spreading itself a little thin, Pausa succeeds at creating a contemporary California-Italian space with a gorgeous interior. Starburst wire chandeliers and walnut tables with a tiger’s eye sheen aren’t rustic in the least — neither are the chef’s table, or the live DJ on a Saturday night — but Pausa’s marriage of urbane sophistication and hominess is a match.

Kicking off with that charcuterie, the Butcher’s Board salumi platter (three for $22, or five for $30) was uneven, with strong highs and lows. A domino-sized slice of ciccioli (pork terrine) was more crumbly than rich, and the porchetta was decidedly bland in spite of a preparation involving rosemary, thyme, and sage. (They’re detectable, but faint. Gravitate toward the prosciutto cotto instead.) The full board comes with tigella, an unusual bread from Emilia-Romagna that looks like a pancake from the outside and a pita pocket from the inside and which is usually paired with cunza, a spreadable lard from the same region. And voilà, it is — and the cunza melts right into it. An airier bread drizzled with olive oil materialized unrequested as well, a nice accent.

But spreadable lard? Yes. Be not afraid, because it’s simply the latest advance in the ongoing battle against our culture’s ebbing fear of clogged arteries. There are pickled veggies — carrots being the most intensely flavored — and a thermonuclear mustard that should be used sparingly lest it overpower everything else. Pausa also has a companion cheese board with the same pricing structure, and tutti i formaggi sono italiani.

For everything that followed, a rule of thumb applied: Hew close to Italy. Pausa’s ambitions generally serve it well, and the emphasis on seasonality and presentation make it a damn shame when a deep-fried crispy egg ($13) comes out looking beautiful, dressed in English peas and snap peas, with watercress and truffle perlage, but tasting like not much. Much better was the hamachi crudo ($16), three cuts of yellowtail arranged like stone-fruit slices and judiciously enhanced with an artichoke-and-squash caponata, aged balsamic, lemon oil, and fennel pollen. Crudo is meant to be kept spare, and that list of strong-flavored ingredients almost reads like the kitchen decided to use a battering ram when tweezers would do. But nope: The fish rose above.

Moving on to pizza, there are all the typical pies, from margherita to the reappearance of prosciutto cotto. But I would recommend the stracciatella ($22), made with bottarga and scallops. Because Italy is basically a confederation of independent countries clumsily stitched into a nation-state, the term stracciatella can be confusing as the prospect of scallops on a pizza. (Did you think of gelato? Here, it refers to the buffalo mozzarella, which has been stretched.)

However counterintuitive, and however ostentatiously it violates Italy’s no-cheese-with-seafood dictum, the scallops were a good idea. This pizza would have benefited from even 45 more seconds in the oven, to keep the center holding together, but the spotted outer crust fell right in the sweet spot between crispy and chewy. And its flavor profile was 100 percent. Granted, the pearly scallops slid off owing to that slightly underbaked middle, but the bottarga — or cured roe — was perfect underneath the watercress and shavings of artichokes. The mozzarella di bufala took on magical properties, like a melted brie without the heaviness. For the first time in memory, I put red pepper flakes on something and immediately wished I hadn’t. It needed nothing.

Apart from a dusting of Parmesan, a plate of stinging-nettle rigatoni ($20) was cheese-free. The satisfying quality of fresh pasta is paramount, but the braised pork sausage ragu was the star. For all the aggression its name implies, stinging nettle’s flavor is quite restrained — and it’s used in naturopathic medicine as an anti-inflammatory, making it even more benign. Proving that no amount of sausage is too much at a place that cures its own meats, the butcher’s sausages ($26) are a solid entree even if the menu doesn’t indicate that one is pork and one is chicken. Served over heirloom Italian broccoli di cicco, it’s soft, fresh, and earthy, with plenty of garlic and Calabrian chile for extra vigor.

Pastry chefs are a dying breed, but it’s worth retaining one to create these bombolini ($10), doughnut holes with whiskey marshmallows, citrus curd, creme anglaise, and espresso hot chocolate for dipping. As far as wines go, I fell in love with a 2013 Bricco Caramelli Dolcetto D’Alba, spicy and soft with the signature almondine flourish at the end, although the all-$12 cocktail list isn’t too shabby, either. In spite of the name, the Sfumato (bourbon, sfumato amaro, gum syrup, lemon) had three distinct phases — sweet, citrus, and bitter — none of which was especially smoky, and the Strozzino (reposado tequila, Cynar 70, sweet vermouth, maraschino) was another in the long string of fanciful Boulevardier variations out there, Italian in spirit — even if its base spirit isn’t.

In case you’re one of the parochial San Franciscans who hits the straightaway section of Highway 101 south of the ruins of Candlestick and immediately experiences Cronenbergian body-horror nightmares about Quizno’s, chill out. Pausa isn’t hard to get to. It’s a 37-minute ride on Caltrain from 4th and King Street to San Mateo Station, then a five-minute walk and you’re there. If you drive, there’s free parking after 6 p.m. in the garage immediately adjacent.

Beyond such suburban comforts, Pausa exudes warmth on par with its oven. If it doesn’t give you pause, it’ll give you life.

Pausa Bar & Cookery, 223 E. Fourth Ave., San Mateo, 650-375-0818 orpausasanmateo.com

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