A good time for pie

Posted by Cameron on 03.27.07 4:56 PM

GialinaNot long ago, I waxed caustic about the dearth of decent pizza in San Francisco, and I pretty much threw the entire city under the bus. But someone somewhere must have been listening, because not long after I posted my rant, Gialina Pizzeria opened.

Chef Sharon Ardiana—whose resume includes stints at Sol y Luna, The Slow Club, and Lime, among others—has put together a very cute little pizzeria in a Glen Park storefront that used to house an unloved (and unmissed) business that served disks of dough topped with tomato sauce and whatever else came to hand.

We’ve been to Gialina a couple of times now, and I’m already looking forward to a return visit. The decor has been updated with lots of trés chic wood veneer and enormous black-and-white family photos from Chef Ardiana’s childhood. The pictures could feel gimmicky, but they don’t—they’re simultaneously hilarious and homey. It feels like you’ve been invited to dinner with the relatives and close friends.

And, just as happily, the food is worthy. The pie dough is pulled into rough circles and passes the critical test of tasting good all by itself. The toppings are good… not mind-bending, but good. The salads have been felicitously composed, and we thoroughly enjoyed the antipasti platter that we ordered on our first visit. The ricotta cheesecake adequately fills the stomach slot labeled “cheesecake,” and there’s a Nutella dessert pizza that looked like a chocolate coma in the making.

A word (or, actually three) about the service: Friendly, welcoming, and as professional as anything that you’re going to find in a neighborhood restaurant. Special bonus points: While you’re waiting for a table, you can leave your cell phone number and bounce down to Glen Park Station (a proper old-school SF bar) for a drink and a quick game of liar’s dice.

Welcome, Gialina. We’ve been waiting for you.

Gialina Pizzeria
2842 Diamond Street
San Francisco, CA 94131

Bay Area, Italian, restaurants


If you can get it here…

Posted by Cameron on 12.23.06 4:53 PM

settebello_pie.jpgSan Francisco, hang your head in shame. Much as I love my City by the Bay, it’s never been a good place for pizza. The situation has improved in recent years, thanks to the likes of Pizzeria Delfina (If you can get in. if you want to pay $70 for pizza.), but only barely.

I’ve always found the situation mystifying–but after today’s lunch it’s escalated to infuriating. Why, in the foodiest city in the country (hush you homers, I’m pontificating), is it practically impossible to get a decent pizza, when I can sit down to a magnificent Neapolitan pie at a strip mall in Henderson, Nevada?

Settebello has modern Vegas charm, which is to say that it’s cavernous, painfully clean, clangingly empty, and so new that you can practically smell the fresh concrete. The sheer size of even the smallest of these commercial spaces dwarfs any attempt at coziness, but Settebello manages to inject some warmth–perhaps it was the overwrought Italian pop music wafting through the sound system. Could have been the Real Madrid game on the widescreen TV. Perhaps it was the friendly staff. Might have been the giant mural of the Bay of Napoli on the wall, or the Italian travel posters. Could it have been the enormous pizza oven?!

The menu is simple, built around Neapolitan pizza. Settebello has been certified by Vera Pizza Napoletana, a distinction that it shares with Seattle’s Via Tribunali, among others. We’ll pass lightly over the absurdity of creating a committee to preserve taste, but only because the pizza at Settobello is very, very, good. I defiled the purity of my margherita with finocchiona from Salumi, secure in the knowledge that “Variations of pizzas are recognized if they are informed by the Neapolitan tradition of pizzas and are not in contrast with the rules of gastronomy.” The pie and its precious cargo were worthy of each other’s company. The sauce and cheese were light, fresh, and applied with a gentle hand. The crust wasn’t quite as perfect, but according to the folks at Valley Wine and Cheese across the parking lot, there have been some oven issues that needed sorting out. Anita’s calzone wasn’t as spectacular as my “margherita con…”, but was still very good.

Nitpicking. Pure nitpicking. This is seriously good pizza. I can’t wait to try the bianca. It will be a sad trip to Henderson that doesn’t include a visit to Settebello, and a sad flight back to pizza wasteland that is San Francisco. I shall console myself with carnitas and birria.

Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana
1776 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway
Henderson, NV 89052

Italian, restaurants, Vegas


Reading the classics

Posted by Anita on 11.01.06 7:30 AM

LA Times California Cookbook (c)2006 AECAmid the press flurry surrounding the 75th Anniversary Joy of Cooking‘s debut, the NY Times published a nicely written piece about other classic cookbooks that stand the test of time. I haven’t ever used any of the books they mentioned, but the story did put me in mind of the classics that I do use.

Around our house, the go-to vintage book — in addition to a 1961 edition of Joy and my grandma’s 1940s-era Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook — is The Los Angeles Times California Cookbook, published in 1981. I cooked out of my mom’s copy when I lived at home, and — many years later — she gifted me with a copy.

I use the California Cookbook at least once a month, mostly for recipes that are a little too West Coast-centric for Joy and the other oldies, but too old-fashioned or boring for Epicurious. Browsing through this collection of 650+ recipes from the paper’s archives, it doesn’t take long to stumble across dishes from one-time celebrities — Mahalia Jackson, Lawrence Welk, Polly Bergen — and popular restaurants of yore. (Remember The Velvet Turtle? The Hungry Tiger?) Each recipe has a little piece of marginalia that introduces its source, adding a bit of backstory and flair.

Of all the dog-eared pages in my copy, this recipe’s the one I like best. The green pepper in the sauce makes it very different from my usual recipe for marinara, but that’s one of the reasons I like it.

Little Joe’s Meatballs
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
1 cup chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
4 eggs
1/4 cup chopped parsley
pinch of oregano
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/4 cup oil, for frying
Spaghetti Sauce (following recipe)

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Form into 1-1/2-inch balls. Heat oil in a large skillet, and add meatballs. Cook until browned, then drain. Add meatballs to spaghetti sauce during last 30 minutes of cooking.

Spaghetti Sauce
1 medium onion, minced
2 T minced green pepper
1 stalk celery, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 T oil
1 can (1# 12oz) whole tomatoes, chopped
1 can (1# 12oz) tomato puree
1 T crushed dried basil
1 tsp. crushed dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 cup water
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 T grated Parmesan

Cook onion, green pepper, celery, and garlic in oil until tender. Add tomatoes and their liquid, tomato puree, and herbs, and simmer 1 hour, stirring often. Add wine, water, salt and pepper, and simmer 30 minutes. Add meatballs, and simmer 30 minutes more. If sauce is too thick, add more water. When sauce is cooked, add cheese and mix well. Serve over spaghetti.

cookbooks, family, Italian, recipes


Cafe of my heart

Posted by Anita on 09.28.06 12:49 PM

cafe lago (c)2006 AECThe last few times we’ve come back to Seattle, we’ve filled our schedules with favorites, but somehow managed to leave Cafe Lago out of the mix — a crying shame, given how much we love the place, and what a huge place it occupied in our culinary life when we lived nearby. (Full disclosure: We’ve become friends with the chef-owners, Carla and Jordi… but we were fans first and foremost.)

As we took our seat near the pizza oven, we glanced at the menu full of all our old favorites: antipasti, handmade pastas, salsiccia pizza, grilled sirloin with shoestring fries… sigh. I’m sure it was a combination of exhaustion and sentiment, but I actually caught myself tearing up a little.

We sat back with a couple of cocktails, and — after a brief flirtation with trying something new — ordered what can only be described as “the usual”: Caesar salad and pizza for Cameron, bleu cheese salad and fettucine with meatballs for me. Sure, there were some changes, but all for the better. “My” salad now includes a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which helps cut the salty-creaminess of the bleu cheese dressing. And the special pizza — topped with marinara sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil — served as a nice riff on the menu’s usual Margherita.

We marveled again at how continues to Lago neatly bridge the gap between neighborhood eatery and fine dining. One of the two tables behind ours was occupied by a couple in jeans and T-shirts, another by an elegantly attired pair who might have been headed to the theatre. Service, as always, was perfect: Attentive without smothering, helpful and gracious. We headed back to our hotel content and just a touch homesick, happy to have spent the evening with an old friend.

Cafe Lago
2305 E. 24th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98112

Italian, restaurants, Seattle
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Babbo bar exam

Posted by Cameron on 09.20.06 3:31 PM

clownIt’s Monday evening, the first night of NYC without reservations. I stroll purposefully down to Washington Square Park and step through the door at Babbo at around seven. The bar and front tables are full and there’s just one couple sipping wine by the door. A quick chat with the host and the next open spot at the bar has my name on it. I try to find an inconspicuous spot to stand and end up by the doorway, dodging the overzealous greenery stashed at head level. Sly and the Family Stone penetrates the air. While I wait, a man walks in dressed as if the Ralph Lauren Polo box arrives in the mail every three months. “Oh,” he mutters. “Looks kinda crowded,” and darts back out, the way you do when you go somewhere all the time and you’d just as soon just grab a hot dog down the street as wait a half hour for dinner. I hate him. He is evil and probably unkind to animals. I am instantly, passionately jealous.

Salvation. My seat is available. Immediately I am confronted with the extensive wine list, but I am hopelessly uncultured and ignorant of Italian wine, and the only name I recognize is Bastianich. Grasping at straws, I point at a likely white and ask the bartender for a description. Among other things he says, “Minerally,” which when used in reference to white wine is akin to saying, “Al-a-kazaam!” to my taste buds.

It is probably due to a deficiency of character that the more exclusive the restaurant, the more powerfully I am drawn to any offbeat meats that appear on the menu. So, like Vincent Vega at Jackrabbit Slim’s, I run my finger down the menu muttering, “Offal, offal, offal,” until I score. It doesn’t take long; Signor Batali is known for his fondness for barnyard variety. I order warm tripe “alla parmigiana” to start, followed by beef cheek ravioli in crushed squab liver sauce.

When the tripe arrives, I am relieved that I didn’t go for three courses (the lamb’s brains pasta was bleating my name). It is an heroic portion of innards and I tuck in with abandon. The tripe is mildly but not aggressively funky, and the red sauce is smooth and sweet, shot through with occasional sage leaves and chunks of soft, thoroughly cooked carrot. The texture of the tripe reminds me of hand-shaven dan-dan noodles. The wine works with the dish, keeping everything light and bright.

I ask for another wine recommendation to accompany my beef cheek ravioli, and the bartender pulls down a bottle that he says was opened for a reserve tasting. Montevertine 2001. Again, I am uninformed and foolish, but it tastes great. It’s a chianti grape, but there’s none of the lurid, screaming cherry attack late in the palate. How civilized. Not cheap, but very civilized. The beef cheek ravioli are very slightly disappointing. The filling is delicious, as is the sauce, but the pasta itself is not quite right. It’s faintly tough, although I’m particularly sensitive to pasta that’s a little too al dente.

As I eat and drink, the wine retains some mystery. There’s something missing that I can’t put my finger on. The absence isn’t unpleasant, but it’s noticeable. Finally I figure out that I’m not getting the boozy punch that my feeble palate must now be accustomed to after years of drinking huge, alcoholic, New World wines. I mention the difference to the bartender and he nods. Of course.

Eating at the bar of a fine restaurant is a little bit like watching a concert from the first row. You can enjoy the show like everyone else, but you also get glimpses of the artists (and sometimes their supporting cast) at work. You get to share some of the tiny, unacknowledged dramas that pepper every live performance. My bartender asks one of the waiters if the customer wants to taste a particular bourbon. “Oh no,” sighs the waiter. “He wants me to taste it for him and tell him if he’ll like it.”

Somewhere between the tripe and the ravioli the room starts getting more crowded. By the time I’m halfway through the ravioli the place is packed. Behind me, an expensively-dressed foursome in their fifties loudly complains about the delay in outer borough accents so thick that I have to smile. Where is Dr. Higgins when you need him?

Over my shoulder, a man asks for a glass of cabernet and a glass of pinot noir. “We don’t have anything made from either of those grapes,” says the bartender, “But we have wines that taste similar.” The man takes a wine list and begins a debate with his female companion that’s obviously going nowhere useful. The bartender listens for less than a minute, then pulls down a bottle of wine and pours tastes for the couple. They’re happy with his choice and settle in to wait for their table. The bartender sets up a glass in front of me and pours another taste. “This is what I would have recommended if you hadn’t gone for the Montevertine,” he says. A few minutes later, he shows up with another bottle and another glass: “You’ll see that this one is more alcoholic. It’s made from grapes grown high up on Mount Etna.” Truly, I am still foolish and uncultured, but I am now also master of universes both known and unknown. I belong here. I shall borrow a corkscrew and carve my name on the bar and that will serve as a marker until a brass plaque can be ordered.

Another couple presses in on my right and the man asks me about the wines in front of me. I tell him what I know and we commiserate over our lack of Italian wine-fu. “When we were in Italy,” he says, “The best wine was whatever was being made locally.” I nod understandingly, as if I’ve been there. Italy. Of course. The man continues, musing regretfully about the Italian wines that they’ve drunk here in the States that haven’t been up to snuff. “I mean, they’re good and all,” he allows, “But are they worth $250 a bottle?” Again, I nod. Indeed. What can one do? Excuse me, I think that’s my Ferrari the valet is bringing around. Ciao.

The cheese course is wonderful: robiola, Coach Farms Finest, and taleggio latte crudo. There’s no way that I can manage dessert. I’m pretty sure that my feet don’t touch the sidewalk all the way back to the hotel.

bar culture, Italian, NYC, restaurants, travel, wine & bubbly


Italian horror

Posted by Cameron on 09.03.06 10:18 AM

VinoRosso aka Romper RoomJoni Mitchell Syndrome is one of the hazards of having lived in several different neighborhoods in the same city. The main symptom is the unconscious romanticization of old stomping grounds (see “Both Sides Now (Clouds)”). It’s particularly frustrating around mealtime, when the first option that pops into your mind–and will not be dislodged–is a favorite nook that used to lie within walking distance but now entails a 30-minute trek by car, motorcycle, or public transit.

With that in mind, you’ll understand how excited I was on Friday night. I was suffering from an acute case of JMS, longing for a quick, informal dinner. “Oh, that I still lived in the Lower Haight,” I moaned (to…to myself. Like Mick.), “I could grab a falafel at Ali Baba and wash it down with a few pints at the Toronado.”

Happily, at that moment I remembered VinoRosso, a wine-bar-plus-nosh that had opened recently on Cortland, the high street of Bernal Heights. Wine instead of beer…salumi instead of chickpeas…sold!

It was awful.

The space was cute enough, and I thought that I’d scored when a couple along the banquette got up to leave just as I walked in, opening a cozy nook that seemed ideal for a light, relaxed, dinner (I’d brought a book). I remember noticing a couple of babes-in-arms at other tables but didn’t give it much thought, as it was early. I could not have been more wrong. I’d only just ordered a glass of pinot grigio and a caprese salad when the little one to my left started screaming…followed by a chorus from the three at the table of parents in a window seat. Mind you, this is not a large restaurant. My table in the back of the main seating area was no more than three or four strides from the door.

I’ve watched very young children melt down in restaurants. Once the volume goes up and the tears start, the civilized thing to do is to gather the bairn up, walk outside, and commune with the night air until the tantrum has waned. Playing airplane, making whooshing or cooing noises, and offering favorite toys or foods are all acceptable variations, so long as they occur outside.

But while the parents at VinoRosso were in full distraction mode, it was all happening inside the enoteca. Everyone was determined to plow through whatever bottles of plonk that they had just overpaid for. The din was horrific. It was so loud that I couldn’t taste the wine. Much to my dismay, I did taste the caprese when it was delivered: rock-hard supermarket tomatoes accompanied by mozzarella so old that it had developed a rind.

A rind. On mozzarella. Ew.

629 Cortland Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94110

Bernal, Italian, wine & bubbly
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Baci per Bacco

Posted by Anita on 08.28.06 11:15 AM

BaccoIf you’re looking for a review of Perbacco restaurant in the Financial District, we’ve got one of those, too. (Psst, click HERE.) But below you’ll find a review of Bacco in Noe Valley.

Cameron’s sister and brother-in-law were visiting last week, taking a slightly circuituitous route from their old home in London to their new one in NYC. Since we’d had a bit of a delay rounding up a babysitter for our favorite niece, all of the city hotspots were long since booked for a Friday-night celebration at anything resembling a decent dinner hour.

And so, like we’ve done so many times before, we turned to Ristorante Bacco, another one of our perennial faves. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: We can never understand why we’re able to walk in without reservations on weeknights, and snag prime-time seats on OpenTable even at the last minute.

It may be a cliché, but Bacco really does feel like a neighborhood restaurant in Italy: great European-style service, well-prepared food with a seasonal vibe, and warm ambiance without a hint of pretension. All of the waiters are Italian, and their European approach is evident: they’re not just here while they write their screenplay or find their next tech job; they’re professional waiters who know a lot about food (and wine) in general, and Bacco’s menu in particular.

The decor is cozy and Tuscan-ish in a manner that verges on caricature: Large smooth terracotta tiles set on a diagonal covering the floor, color-washed walls, long/heavy curtains, and bas-relief sculptures of Bacchus and his nymphs.

The menu changes seasonally, but many items remain year-round. Unless you’ve spent your life eating at Olive Garden, Bacco’s not going to change the way you think about Italian food. But that’s not really the issue: We come here — as you should — expecting good food, simply prepared.

Appetizers cover a wide range: there’s usually a soup (often bland and forgettable), a special salad (usually one of the best choices; they sound more boring than they turn out), and some seasonal small plate.

In the pasta section, our old favorites include a rigatoni dish with lamb ragu and tiny peas. The usual assortments of meat-centric entrees are workmanlike (and more expensive) and generally not quite as interesting as the pastas. But if you see something that catches your eye, go for it: all of them use top-notch ingredients and are prepared just as they should be.

Desserts — panna cotta, affogato, tiramisu and the like — are satisfying, if neither particularly innovative nor seasonally inspired. The wine list offers a small assortment of California reds and whites, plus a larger selection of Italian varietals; all are reasonably priced.

Ristorante Bacco
737 Diamond Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

Italian, Noe Valley, restaurants
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Ox tales, chapter 1

Posted by Cameron on 08.14.06 4:32 PM

oxtails (c)2006 CCI get a little goofy when it comes to braising, and a lot goofy around variety meats. So when I saw oxtails on sale at our local pan-Asian supermarket for $2.50 a pound on Saturday, I grabbed an armload of whole, skinned tails out of the butcher’s case and ran up and down the aisles cackling like Vincent Price while blood dripped on the floor and everyone stared at the crazy gweilo.

At least, that’s what I wish I did. The staring part was true, but that happens whenever I go to 99 Ranch because I’m the only bald white guy in there.

I like Mario Batali’s oxtail ragu recipe out of The Babbo Cookbook. The picture is of my five pounds salted, peppered oxtails ready to be dredged lightly in flour and thoroughly browned in olive oil in a dutch oven on the stovetop. When the meat was seared, I set it aside on a platter and dumped some thickly sliced onions into the hot oil. When they were brown, the meat went back in with some red wine, Basic Tomato Sauce (Mario again), chicken stock, and thyme. Cover tightly and into the oven at 300 degrees for four hours or so. The cookbook says 375 degrees for 90 minutes, but that’s too hot and not near long enough.

When all was loosey-goosey and falling apart, I pulled out the oxtails and picked off the meat. At every moment I was attended by my faithful dogs, overcome as they were by love and devotion for me. The loose meat went back into the cooking liquid and thence into the fridge. Tuesday I’ll boil it down and freeze it for low-impact dinners.

cookbooks, cooking, Italian, meat, recipes, shopping


SOTF: Italian (part II)

Posted by Anita on 03.17.06 4:31 PM

Tortellini en brodo (c)2006 AECFor my second attempt at Italian soups for the fortnight, I made tortellini en brodo. Actually, I made about 100 tortellini, and now I have LOTS in the freezer…

cooking, Italian, Soup o' the Fortnight
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Soup of the Fortnight: Italian

Posted by Anita on 03.06.06 4:27 PM

saffron soup (c)2006 AECWe made a Fettuccine and Garbanzo soup from Molto Italiano. It called for a whopping 1 tsp. of saffron threads, which (of course!) gave it a lush, decadent flavor — even though the soup was entirely vegetarian — and turned the fettucine pieces a lovely shade of gold. It was very simple and tasty, although the quantity of pasta seemed way too generous; next time, I will reduce the pasta by half.

cookbooks, cooking, Italian, Soup o' the Fortnight