Hayes Valley’s Unpretentious Il Borgo Is Full of Rude Vitality

In the sense of animal spirits, that is. Hayes Valley can be a tad trendy, so here's a nice corrective to all the fuss — with plenty of trompe l'oeil.

Every neighborhood has a quiet local institution or two that longtime residents know all about, whereas newcomers might approach them as quaint amusements: “Oh, I love the idea of that map store/bead shop/camera-repair place/family-run junkatorium!” Such spots probably have a middling Yelp score because parking is bad or because the curmudgeonly proprietors pride themselves more on their unique expertise than on their ability to smooch entitled people’s little butts. It’s easy to take them for granted because they seem to defy time. Then, one day, they’re gone, ejected by rent hikes or because the owner called it quits to snowbird it up in Scottsdale.

You don’t have to be Jane Jacobs to believe that charming anachronisms add more to the fabric of a city’s street life than any deadening, turquoise-glass facade can ever take away. Sometimes, these places have facades of their own that involve trompe l’oeil and frescoed clusters of grapes, and sometimes they adorn restaurants that are so relentlessly out-of-style they make bourbon-glazed pork chops and flourless chocolate cake appear trendy. Il Borgo at the western edge of Hayes Valley is such a place. It’s not a restaurant; it’s a ristorante, and one that bakes its own bread. Although it stops short of Chianti fiascos, there are red-and-white checkered tablecloths, candleholders overflowing with the wax of their long-departed brethren, a server who chides you for not finishing, and a big stuffed Mickey Mouse in the restroom.

I’m taking a break from the usual parade of buzzy new restaurants to shine a little love on this neighborhood staple, because a corrective is in order. Hayes Valley has a few sawdusty places that cater to the pre-opera crowd — and it would be easy to include Il Borgo among them if it weren’t several blocks west. And I want to be clear and not condescending: This is not a struggling mom-and-pop place that needs some TLC. Il Borgo is thriving. My boyfriend and I went there on Valentine’s Day and every table was full of couples and bottles of Montepulciano. I’m glad. It deserves it.

Did you know that garlic, that giver of rude vitality, was once considered improper to serve to polite company? I’m guessing it’s because of the odor, but garlic is a superstar now. Il Borgo don’t give a shit about gentility or superfood wellness. This bruschetta ($9.75) is full of animal spirits, its tomato chunks lacquered with raw allium. People say you can’t mess up bruschetta, but you sure can. It can be soggy and it can be bland. This was crunchy and luscious. Raw is right, and a plate of beef carpaccio ($11) with arugula, pecorino shavings, and black pepper is even righter. Be very careful with the lemon wedge, though. Just let it hover without a squeeze.

Gorgonzola pizza. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

Why stop there? A $12 gorgonzola pizza refrains from subtlety, the blue veins melting into the pie to where it might look like a plain cheese pizza. It’s not so much that it bites back, and I’m glad the kitchen doesn’t Rachael Ray it with unnecessary prosciutto — or worse, pears — but this level of pungency would be a hard standalone meal. It’s also a good barometer of Chef Sergio Frigerio’s native Milan. Garlic took the lead again on the penne arrabiata ($12.75), a snappy portion of pasta with the kind of heat that feels like it emanates from the core of the sauce, red pepper flakes like uranium rods from a nuclear meltdown that had burrowed their way into the earth’s mantle.

Chef’s specials like lobster ravioli ($15.50) will always be attention-hogs, but this dish owes its excellence to the aurora sauce and not the lobster per se. Based on a béchamel, which in turn comes from a roux, you can still detect the flour’s nuttiness, which keeps the butter and the tomato from going rococo. If you want a quieter standout, the lasagnetta del Borgo ($15.50) is the one. I still associate lasagna with wakes and Cub Scout dinners in the American Legion, but this is no diminutive version of some suburban casserole. It’s three spirals of pasta — noodles, really — coiled around prosciutto and mozzarella, but with just enough structure to keep it from falling apart on the fork. In theory, it’s the kind of thing I would prefer with a crisped edge, some greater variety of texture, or maybe a layer of braised greens to give it some bitterness, but not here. (Bonus points to a dish whose price goes up in 50-cent increments, too.)

If there was one dish that was only so-so on two visits, it would be the fettucine al Bolognese. The beef was under-seasoned and the component soffritto didn’t have the effect that the béchamel had on the lobster ravioli. Combine that with overcooked pasta and you get flab. But for dessert, you can’t go wrong with this mascarpone-dominant tiramisu, which has a sort of coffee-rubbed loam on the top and an interior that’s almost all cream.

In encouraging people to patronize Il Borgo I want to avoid patronizing Il Borgo, but there’s no way around its cheesiness factor. If these walls could talk, they’d say, “Yes, I’m tacky. How’s the food, mia patatina?” We inhabit a world where a few too many inanimate objects have their own Instagram accounts, and fortunately, the corner of Fell and Laguna is just a bit outside the trend-chasing elsewhere in Hayes Valley. Sometimes, you want to sit on something that looks like a pew from a deconsecrated basilica and eat some penne with a glass of wine.

Il Borgo, 500 Fell St., 415-255-9108 or ilborgosf.com

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