Incanto: Living Up to the Tripe

Incanto, Chris Cosentino's offal-friendly Italian restaurant in Noe Valley, closed on Monday. The restaurant was nationally known thanks to its daring cuisine and the chef's multiple appearances on Top Chef, and its shuttering marks the end of an era in San Francisco food (at least to those of us who follow restaurants the way others follow sports teams).

The restaurant's impact on the popularization of offal — the heads, tails, brains, glands, innards, and other piddly animal bits — can't be overemphasized. Cosentino was cooking that stuff way before it became trendy to dare your dining companions to eat odd animal parts. A thoughtful piece in the Chronicle also pointed out the smaller ways in which Incanto mattered: It was one of the first in the city to offer complimentary filtered water (flat and bubbly), have an all-Italian wine list, and provide medical benefits to employees.

But, cities and tastes change, and it was time to move on. Cosentino's not decamping for New York or anything; he and co-owner Mark Pastore are just changing the restaurant's name and concept. Their new Porcellino, coming late spring, will be a more casual, neighborhood-y affair. It will have meats from the team's Boccalone available in sandwiches and at the on-site market, and at night it will have bowls of pasta and salads, Italian comfort food. Cosentino's also working on a restaurant in the former Zuppa space in SoMa — details on that are still sketchy, but it's safe bet that it will be interesting.

Before it closed, I paid a visit to Incanto with some food industry friends to see what the hype was all about. We ordered the “Butcher's Breakfast”: seared calf brains and ham with buttered toast fingers and little ramekins of hollandaise and hot sauce, all served on a butcher's block. The brains were soft, scrambled egg-like, fatty, and intense. We ordered beef heart tartare with a quail egg on top, the beefiness purer in the organ meat than the regular muscle. We ordered sea urchin butter with radishes and pig head with octopus and chickpeas. Somewhat tellingly, the best things we ate were the most ordinary: the restaurant's famous pork ragu, as soft and meaty as you could want, and a dish of seared escarole with an electric lemon zip.

The food was good, the service solicitous, but something about the restaurant felt dowdy, out of date. Maybe it was the Italianate facade and interior, with its terra cotta walls and stone pillars and polished wood, or the thick gold curtains that divided our side room from the restaurant. Maybe it was something about the color palate, wall sconces, or furniture tugging at my subconscious in a way I couldn't readily identify. In 12 years, the much-maligned Edison bulb, reclaimed wood, and poured concrete interiors of today will certainly elicit the same response. But very few restaurants last as long as Incanto without a facelift.

It's easy to get nostalgic about a place that's made such a mark on S.F.'s dining landscape. But even worse would be if Incanto kept on going beyond the interest of its owners, its neighborhood, or the food industry at large (none of us present for dinner had been there before, and would probably not go back even if it remained open). So we can look forward to the new spots, and the fact that Incanto's owners never compromised. In the words of Cosentino and Pastore in a blog post on the restaurant's website:

“Looking back, our greatest sense of accomplishment is that Incanto has been a restaurant that has always stayed true to its own point of view, no matter where it led us.”

As long as that vision is good, that's all we can ask of a restaurant.

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