Mi Amor

Let him count the ways this unique Italian restaurant won his heart

This week, in honor of Valentine's Day, I offer this love letter to my favorite restaurant, Incanto. Full disclosure: A normal, anonymous review of the place would be impossible. I've been a regular customer since before this column led me to start dining pseudonymously, and so I am usually greeted by name when I walk in. However, I recommend the place constantly and, based on reports back, feel safe in sharing my enthusiasm.

So, out of more than 3,000 alternatives in San Francisco, why this one? Let me count the ways.

First and foremost: the passion of its people. Owner Mark Pastore walked away from a career as a high-tech executive to pursue his dream of building and running an Italian restaurant. Read his musings on the Web site: Clearly, for him, Incanto is a labor of love. The same goes for the chef, Chris Cosentino, who so obsesses about his work that he spends his vacations guest-cooking in other chefs' kitchens and his spare time blogging about offal (see Offalgood.com) and researching “the definitive cookbook” on the subject. Wine director Edward Ruiz brings a similar focus to populating the 200-bottle, all-Italian list with delicious and unusual wines from every region and in all price ranges. Most nights all three are in house, inspiring the staff and making sure everything goes right. To allow them that level of personal involvement without burning out, the restaurant is open only 26 hours a week.

Second: exceptional ingredients. Cosentino and Pastore have established personal relationships with sustainability-minded farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, from whom they get rare items such as tuna gills and pig's spleen, and for whom they throw an annual appreciation dinner. They've planted an herb garden on the rooftop, and sometimes forage around the neighborhood for fennel and other wild foods. These high standards have led to numerous awards and honors, including a Slow Food snail, a Santé award for sustainable practices, a Certified Humane Raised & Handled certificate, and a perfect 100 rating from the S.F. Department of Public Health.

Third: I can afford to eat there regularly. Pastore conceived Incanto as a neighborhood restaurant, and getting neighbors in means keeping prices roughly in line with places that have lower expenses. One way they accomplish that is by eliminating the middleman: The charcuterie, pasta, bread, and desserts are all made in-house. The pork comes from whole animals broken down in-house, thus providing heads for the head cheese, liver for the pâtés, and heart, tripe, and odder bits for the appetizers. To keep the total bill down, instead of selling bottled water, Incanto provides free filtered Hetch Hetchy tap water, eliminating environmentally wasteful bottles and shipping.

Fourth: The menu allows for a wide variety of meals, from a quick and simple dinner of a plate of pasta and a glass of wine up to a three-hour, six-course feast. For extra flexibility, most pastas are available in half and full orders. A rotating selection of 25 wines available by the taste, glass, or carafe makes it easy to match wines to each course even if you're not a big drinker. Two fixed-price menus are available by advance order: a five-course all-offal meal for two or more, and a feast for 12 to 20 in the private room built around a whole roast lamb, goat, or pig.

Fifth: the food. There are two ways to cook traditional rustic Italian food in other countries. One approach is to duplicate a particular regional cuisine as closely as possible: A16's a great local example. Incanto takes the other, applying the philosophy and techniques of the Italian kitchen to local ingredients. Some of the dishes could have been teleported in from Bologna, others are completely original, but the total experience feels like the meals I ate when I lived in Italy — not a feeling I get any place else in this area.

To get an overview of the menu, let's walk through the kind of blowout meal I order on my birthday. Usually I'll start with the antipasto platter for two, a selection of Cosentino's cured meats with pickled vegetables, a roasted head of garlic, and lovely house-made whole-grain mustard. On a recent visit this included delicate head cheese, robust “porchetta di testa” (a whole Berkshire pig's head, boned, and marinated with herbs and garlic, then cooked, cooled, and sliced), coppa, prosciutto, and the best domestic mortadella I've tasted. Alternatively, we might go for offal dishes, such as grilled beef heart, braised tripe, or sauteed chicken livers. We usually balance the rich meats with a couple of vegetable appetizers, such as shaved, marinated raw summer squash or a capery salad of young broccoli rabe leaves (rapini).

Next come the pastas. The only one that's almost always on the menu is a must-try: handkerchief pasta with pork ragù, wide, very thinly rolled noodles, cooked al dente and coated with unctuous essence of pig. Rather than choosing between the three or four other pastas, I usually just order them all to share.

A note for vegetarians: The menu always includes one pasta and one entree without meat or fish. Whether these are as inspired as the other dishes depends on what the farmers have to offer. For example, a plate of orecchiette with bitter greens I had once was fabulous, while a friend was ready to write the place off after a bland squash risotto. My advice: Order lots or all of the generally excellent vegetable appetizers.

After all that starch, I'm starting to get full, so often we'll share entrees. As with the pastas, my favorite is the one always-available dish, the tender and juicy braised pork shoulder. Cosentino has such a feel for this animal that it's perfectly reasonable to do three courses of pork. He also does an annual all-pork “Head to Tail” dinner: This year's is coming up in May. Another regularly recurring standout is brodetto, an elaborate bouillabaisselike fish and shellfish soup. The single best entree to date was the main course from the 2006 Head to Tail dinner: finanziera, a rich, complex stew including sweetbreads, boned ducks' tongues, blood sausage, and cockscombs served over risotto — sounds like something you'd eat on a dare, but it was truly one of the most delicious dishes I had last year.

By this point, further eating is pure gluttony. If there's most of a nice bottle of wine left, we might get a cheese plate to help polish it off, or if the meal was mostly meat and starch, maybe a salad for a modicum of balance. More often, we move right on to dessert.

Even if you're stuffed, try the panna cotta, an almost weightless buttermilk gelatin with varying sauces — the version with saba (the syrupy concentrated grape must from which balsamic vinegar is made) and black pepper is particularly exciting. Seasonal fruit desserts are also a highlight, particularly the high-summer watermelon budino, a traditional Sicilian pudding made by thickening watermelon juice with cornstarch. I highly recommend ending the meal with a flute of Birbet brachetto, a moderately sweet red sparkling wine with a slightly bitter finish.

What more can I say? I love this place. I feel spoiled and lucky to be able to eat there on a whim and on the most special occasions. Viva Incanto!

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