Usually, when people tell me the name of their favorite restaurant in San Francisco, I know what they're talking about: Either I've been there, or it's on my wish list of places to visit. But when Alessandra said that her favorite spot was Albona, in North Beach, I was stumped — and intrigued, especially when she told me it specialized in the cooking of Istria.
The region is at the easternmost tip of the top of Italy's boot, has a complicated national history that includes allegiances to the empires of Rome, Venice, and Austro-Hungary, and those influences can be seen in its cuisine. After World War I, it became part of Italy; but at the end of World War II, it was ceded to Yugoslavia. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Istria is now part of Croatia, bordered by Italy and Slovenia.
I've never been to Istria, but when I visited Yugoslavia, I enjoyed wonderful pastas all along the coast, directly across the Adriatic from Italy, and simply prepared fish, pulled from the same ocean.
In fact, San Francisco has many Croatians in its restaurant history — but no Croatian restaurants as such. Many of the owners and servers of such venerable institutions as Tadich's and Sam's were Croatian, and the tradition continues: One of the best waiters at the new Joe DiMaggio's in North Beach told me he was Croatian.
I also trusted Alessandra because she was a cooking companion of the famous Angelo who taught Michael Pollan how to shoot wild pigs, as recounted in The Omnivore's Dilemma. The most delicious bolognese I'd ever had was made from a wild boar Angelo hunted. It seemed that Albona's owner, Bruno Viscovi, who'd come to San Francisco as a 14-year-old boy from the hillside Istrian town he named his restaurant after, was another such charming character, renowned for explaining not just his menu but his history to his customers.
He was certainly courtly and caring when I called twice to make reservations; the restaurant proved to be closed on the first date we tried. The next time, he asked if anybody needed directions, and proudly told me that he offered free valet parking — a first in my experience in S.F.
Albona is located on a quiet residential block, seemingly worlds, rather than a few streets, away from the bustle of both North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf. Inside, the simple room also feels timeless: Each side of the cream-colored room is lined with a burgundy leather banquette, above which is stripped a long burgundy-framed mirror. The linens are white, the dark-wood chairs are also upholstered in burgundy, and small bouquets of dark-red carnations adorn each table. It's the kind of room I could see James Joyce, a famous resident of Trieste, dining at in the 1920s. Almost every table in the snug room was occupied; I loved the big round table we got, near the steps that led up to a small pantry, beyond which you can glimpse the steamy kitchen.
The hybrid nature of Istrian cuisine was clearly visible on the menu, where Germano-Hungarian braised sauerkraut with onions and apples shared the page with classic Italian breaded eggplant topped with mozzarella and basil marinara sauce and Venetian rabbit in agrodolce (sweet and sour) sauce. The stellar dishes at dinner included that sauerkraut, called capuzi garbi con prosuto e luganega (in what the menu proudly identifies as the Venetian dialect of Albona) tarted up with chunks of prosciutto as well as the onions and apples, topped with smoked chicken-apple sausage, and it was enough for a light supper rather than the appetizer it's listed as. I also loved the tender squid, stuffed with toasted bread crumbs, chopped Italian parsley, and garlic, roasted in a light marinara sauce, and especially the sardele in saor a la veneziana, fat sardine fillets in a flavorful sweet and sour marinade of red-wine vinegar, sweet glazed onions, raisins, and pine nuts.
The best main courses were a well-made, creamy yet toothy risoto con funghi di bosco (which translates to: from the woods, a rather romantic description for its cultivated yet tasty mushrooms); the homey braseola de porco, baked pork loin stuffed with sauerkraut, prosciutto, apples, and plums; and the fish of the day, carefully cooked halibut in an evanescent sauce of white wine, butter, and lemon. Although I love fruit with flesh, I was disappointed in the scalopine de peto de pollo con zeriese Mareska; the firm cherries marinated in maraschino (nothing like the bright-red cocktail maraschino cherries) overpowered the sautéed chicken breast with which they were served. And I expected something a little more unusual from the description of the sauce for the baked rigatoni I ordered, called sgremolada de salsiccia, a homemade mild pork and mortadella ragout, but the resulting dish was solid Italian comfort food. We drank solid Italian comfort wines from the compact (10 whites, 15 reds) list: a white Friulian Tocai, a Piemontese Barbera d'Alba.
I liked everything about the place: the professional service, the old-fashioned room, the classical, untrendy cooking.
I returned a month-and-a-half later for dinner with my parents, and had an even better dinner. All of our starters were unusual. The chifelleti di mia nona con sugo de carne al cumin were pan-fried potato gnocchi, slightly crusty on the outside, soft and steamy within, in a thin dark-brown meaty-tasting sauce alluringly scented with cumin. “Anything would taste good with this sauce,” my father said. My mother loved her strudel con pasta fatta in casa, tender homemade pasta rolled up like a jellyroll with prosciutto and Lappi cheese (don't ask me how a Finnish cheese finds its way into an Istrian dish, but Lappi is popular all over Eastern Europe), sliced again, like a jellyroll and baked in a creamy, mildly tomatoey bechamel-like sauce. Although it's not stated on the menu, all the pastas and risottos can be prepared in half-portions, so I had a small version of the risoto de speck con safran, again a properly made risotto, the diced smoky spiced ham almost overpowered by the generous amount of saffron that had turned the rice a bright yellow-orange.
We followed with an amazingly tender braised veal shank whose soft meat, in a sticky Burgundy and rosemary glaze, literally fell off its bone, and a plump, moist disjointed braised half-rabbit in a similarly lip-smacking agrodolce sauce, sweet with honey, sour with vinegar, and spiced with whole juniper berries — both dishes served with creamy polenta. Broiled lamb loin was marinated with wine, vinegar, and mint, sliced into pink medallions, and came with roasted potatoes, and fresh steamed cauliflower, broccoli, squash, and carrots.
We lingered over a slice of house-baked chocolate ricotta cheesecake with a ricotta crust, and espresso-flavored gelato topped with Mareska cherries (considerably more at home here than with the chicken); when they quickly disappeared, a thoughtful and eagle-eyed waiter arrived, unbidden, with a dish holding several more. I marveled at the even keel of this unique little place, flying, as my father said, a bit under the radar, open only 25 hours a week, yet poised to sail into its third decade.