One of my tablemates at Zingari (“gypsies”), a new Italian restaurant with strong Tuscan overtones, had spent the last three years living in semirural South America. “I'm not really used to this sort of thing,” she said, staring at the menu as if it were a hieroglyphic riddle.
Or did she mean the restaurant itself? I glanced around the long, narrow dining room, its soft, off-white walls intermittently broken by huge plate-glass windows that gave onto Post Street, just off Union Square. Lights, limousines at the hotel across the street, happy passers-by: It's for sights like these that people live in cities and tend to love San Francisco.
The dining room reminded me, in its dimensions, of an oversize railroad dining car, and, in its restrained elegance, of a trattoria where we'd eaten dinner in Milan last autumn, near the duomo. At the farthest two tables sat groups of people speaking rapid Italian among themselves and to the maitre d', when he appeared. Their symphonic conversation, accompanied by energetic gesturing, burnished the restaurant's patina of authenticity.
The food, as the maitre d' suggested to me as we were leaving, is not yet perfect. I smiled and nodded at him without disagreeing, because he was right. For us, the kitchen misfired on a couple of dishes — not catastrophically, but enough to be noticeable. As Ruth Reichl recently wrote in the New York Times, restaurants sometimes need a few weeks or months to find their legs; on the other hand, if they're charging the public full price, that public has a right to expect full quality.
At the top of the kitchen's to-do list should be grilling the portobello mushroom correctly in the scamorza affumicata, radicchio e portobello alla griglia ($7.95), a first course that included smoked cheese and wild chicory (which resembled thin, whitish stalks of celery, softened by the cooking). The cheese and chicory were fine, but the mushroom had been scorched. It had that carbon taste that foods can pick up from a charcoal grill that hasn't been cleaned.
The bresaola all'agretto con la rucola ($8.50) was better — a classic Tuscan combination of beef, lemon, and arugula, with its nutty sharpness. These simple, ancient ingredients fit together perfectly. The twist was the air-cured beef, which appeared on the plate in thin slices strikingly similar to prosciutto.
Italian chefs don't seem to favor leeks quite as much as the French do, but the zuppa di porri ($5.50) was lovely, a pale green, creamy broth studded with bits and chunks of leek. Groviera cheese (a Florentine specialty) subtly deepened the leeks' timbre.
The other soup, pasta e fagioli ($4.75), was excellent and warming — peasant food dolled up with tiny pinwheel pasta. The broth itself had been thickened with bean puree: A big bowl of it, along with a loaf of fresh bread, would have made an ample, simple supper. (It's no wonder Tuscans are known through the rest of Italy as “bean-eaters.”)
“What are wild boar vegetables?” my recently repatriated friend asked me. We were searching the menu for meatless choices; like so many people I know, she's muddling toward vegetarianism, for health and environmental and economic and ethical reasons, in no special order. Under the pastas, we noticed the pappardelle sul cinghiali ($14.95), “wide pasta sauteed with wild boar vegetables.”
“That's a typo,” the waiter explained. “There should be a comma there, after 'boar.' “
I asked if it was genuine wild boar, and he said it was: imported from Italy. It was good but not sensational, the boar being essentially pork and the “light tomato sauce” a fairly ordinary marinara.
The spaghettini ($10.95) was a more modest dish that packed more flavor. It was tossed with a sauce of tomato, garlic, and basil; like the best Tuscan food, it was simple, changeless, perfect — the way it always has been and always will be. (It was also a very large serving; the woman who ordered it only ate half, and even with the rest of us nibbling away, a third or so remained by the time we were ready to leave.)
The costoletta alla Valdostana ($21.95) was a veal loin chop stuffed with fontina cheese and truffles, then breaded and sauteed. The meat was overcooked though not ruined, and we found no trace of either cheese or truffles inside. But the presentation was striking — a long bone protruded from the end of the meat, like a handle — and on the side were gorgeously crisped potatoes and a pile of sauteed spinach (another Tuscan touch).
By ritual and default, I chose the petrale sole ($24, the day's fish special) — a dish no one else I'm with ever seems to want. Something about the fish seems to command loving attention from kitchens around the city, including Zingari's; in their timeless version, the sauteed filets were bathed in a butter sauce souped up with caper and lemon. The bitter saltiness of the capers and the lemon's citrus zing seemed to melt together into something altogether different, rich yet astringent, distinct from the sole yet indissolubly part of the dish. (On the side were the signature potatoes and spinach, which took nicely to the sauce as it pooled nearby.)
I tried in vain to stifle a tablemate's urge to order tiramise ($7), a reflexive tendency in him that reminds me of Dr. Strangelove's stubbornly independent arm. There was a ton of whipped cream, chocolate, and the espresso-soaked cake on the plate — but mostly there was the smell of rum. “Like a distillery,” I thought to myself. “If I light a match, I'll blow out half the block!” A sore temptation to my pyromaniac side, but I resisted by pondering instead my unshakable dislike for tiramise, no matter who makes it — just as my friend who always orders it will eat the whole thing, whether he thinks it's good or not.
Zingari has some work to do before it can lay claim to being one of the city's better Italian restaurants (let alone one of the more affordable ones), but it does have the feel of modern Italy — the effortless, understated stylishness; the professional, attentive service leavened with just the right pinch of friendliness. For those who've been to Italy, it's like sitting inside a memory.
Zingari Ristorante, 501 Post, S.F., 885-8850. Daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m.