“I don't think of North Beach as having new restaurants,” my lawyer friend said as, having entrusted the car to the valet, we stepped into Rose Pistola, Reed Hearon's new North Beach restaurant.
“No,” I managed to agree. I was still trembling slightly from the humiliation of driving right past the restaurant, then, like a hapless tourist, blocking traffic in an effort to back up. Driving and parking anywhere around Columbus and Broadway is unusually nightmarish, which perhaps explains the area's slightly time-warp quality. In a near-island city, North Beach is nearly an island itself: difficult to reach by Muni Metro or car; a closed urban ecosystem. But if the lifeblood of restaurants is foot traffic, then Rose Pistola will thrive.
It should thrive, because it's excellent: recognizably a close relation to Lulu (Hearon's SOMA place) yet distinctively different. My architect friend always refers to Lulu as an “L.A. sort of restaurant,” but his first words on entering Rose Pistola were, “This is so Italian!” He meant, I suppose, almost every detail, from the mahogany woodwork (detailed with chrome) in the deep, airy dining room to the sensational potpourri of Italian tiles — of every shape, size, and color — on the floor. (The large open bar/kitchen that dominates the front of the space, on the other hand, is strikingly of present-day San Francisco.)
The restaurant takes its name from the 88-year-old grande dame of North Beach; longtime proprietor and chef of Pistola's Cafe; and lifelong resident of the neighborhood. The food reflects the Ligurian and Genoese heritage of North Beach's early settlers; there's cioppino, for instance (the seafood stew), and plenty of olive oil, garlic, and lemon.
Those signature ingredients were written all over the platter of mixed cured fishes ($7.50) — a dish so good we immediately ordered it again (and were served it before the main courses arrived). The fishes included thin slices of swordfish (which in this preparation resembled tender calamari steaks) and salmon (meatier-tasting, a little less tender), along with fillets of sardines and anchovies. I couldn't tell these last two apart, other than by size.
The whole crispy fried artichoke ($4.50) tasted to me like roasted pumpkin seeds, which don't taste like much. But the spring pea and leek risotto fritters with fontina and truffle oil ($3.75) were lovely: delicately browned on the outside, chewy-creamy (with the risotto cooked nicely al dente) inside.
The purple asparagus ($4.75) were accompanied by baby leeks, fava beans, and black chanterelles — a sensuous-sounding combination that looked better than it tasted. The problem with purple asparagus is that if you cook them they turn green (and ordinary), while if you don't cook them their flavor doesn't really develop. The kitchen chose to keep them purple, so they looked and crunched better than they tasted. The other players on the plate added very little.
The best first course by far, as our server promised, was the focaccia with prosciutto and porcini oil ($9.50). The kitchen was more than generous with the ham, layering it over the entire surface of the focaccia. And the bread itself was thin and crispy — like a proper pizza back East, the kind that's so difficult to find here in the land of puff.
(The focaccia that was served to every table free, on the other hand, was ghastly: cold and stale, despite a sprinkling of roasted balsamic onion on top.)
Like Lulu, Rose Pistola favors “family style” service, with everyone at the table having a crack at all the dishes. One of our main courses, the braised sea bass ($13.95), arrived well before the others (the night's only glitch), so we circulated it around the table as if it were another first course. The fish itself was firm, tender, and bland; most of the flavor came from the fat slices of garlicky cotechino sausage and the parsley pistou that filled most of the oblong serving crock.
The gnocchi ($8.50) were served in a calamari Bolognese sauce that was as alive with garlic and a flick of chili pepper as the traditional meat version. The little potato dumplings themselves were moist and tender — an ideal match to the passionate sauce.
The spring lamb ($17.50) — milk fed and wood roasted — looked overwhelming on the plate: three guitarlike shapes with bones protruding like long necks. But there was less meat, and more fat, than met the eye. The lamb did arrive medium rare, a pale rose at the center, as ordered, and it was garnished with roasted carrots and potatoes and a heap of fresh watercress.
The watercress, according to the menu, was supposed to have come with the spit-roasted quail ($14.50), along with potato salad. Instead the quail rested on a bed of soft polenta studded with Italian green beans. (No potato salad.) The birds themselves were surprisingly meaty, and their skin had browned to a pretty crispness, but they were (am I actually writing these words?) nearly oversalted.
Of the desserts, the most sensational by far was the flaming chocolate-orange and vanilla fried cream ($7.50). The server sprinkled three loglike truffles (two chocolate, the other vanilla) with sugar, then doused them with Cointreau (an orange-flavored liqueur), which she ignited with one of those campfire sparkers. The resulting blue blaze, besides being beautiful, caramelized the outsides of the truffles while leaving the insides meltingly warm. (And stunningly rich.)
The strawberries in red wine with zabaglione ($5.50) were also a big hit, mainly because of the shamelessly rich custard in which the strawberries (fat, sweet, unblemished: surely not the first of the local crop) nested.
But only I really liked the Meyer lemon tart ($4.50), which wrapped a gorgeously buttery tart crust around a filling that included the candied rinds of the lemons. The tart seemed to bring out the Meyer's oranginess, and candied orange always makes me think of Christmastime.
Back on the street it wasn't Christmastime but a mild, breezy spring evening. Italian weather; Italian-like crowds up and down the street, yakking away. Everybody happy? Certainly if they were coming out of Rose Pistola.
Rose Pistola, 532 Columbus, S.F., 399-0499. Sun-Thurs 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.