There is no missing "The Yellow Building" when you're near the Dogpatch. That big bright house just celebrated its third anniversary as the home of Piccino, the little Cal-Ital restaurant that put the Dogpatch on the culinary and cultural map. Even with new condos and restaurants sprouting up left and right around Piccino today, the restaurant still seems to be the center of the Dogpatch solar (or neighborhood) system.
It's a pleasure simply to sit in the serene dining room and appreciate just how calm an open restaurant kitchen can be. And yes, the dining room is even more relaxing in the daytime when that bountiful Dogpatch sunshine makes electric lighting completely unnecessary.
Along with the atmospheres, the reason Piccino remains a centerpiece for the neighborhood and even a destination worth crossing the city for is chef de cuisine Anne Alvero's* salads, pastas, and pizzas. This is the definition of the produce-centric California meets Italian cuisine you see everywhere these days. Except Piccino does it just about better than anybody else.
Vegetarian dishes make up a significant portion of an fairly compact menu. I still can't get enough of the farro salad ($10), an always-evolving menu feature. Just to show how rapidly Alvero's menu evolves based on produce changes, one of the salad's main components switched from kohlrabi during my visit the first week of June to fennel now in the second week of June because the kohlrabi wasn't up to the kitchen's standards anymore.
The chefs first toast a big pot of farro in the oven (anywhere between five minutes and 40 minutes one chef informed me, depending on the farro for the day!). Then the farro gets tossed with minced shallots, Dijon mustard, olive oil, and red wine vinegar before a generous forest of tender green bor kale and julienned kohlrabi are mixed into the bowl. The crowning gremolata brightens everything in the room temperature salad with its herb-crunch combination of pine nuts and mint.
Every time I enjoy the latest farro salad iteration at Piccino I'm always reminded of how former SF Weekly critic Jonathan Kauffman described the dish (with roasted cauliflower and roasted almonds at the time) in 2011 when Rachel Silcocks was opening chef in the new space as haunting him "more persistently than a Rihanna song." It's true. Except maybe it haunts diners more like Katy Perry now in 2014.
Having had the farro salad back then and several since, it is without a doubt one of the consistently excellent and virtuous dishes this city has. Healthful yoga grain salads can actually be riveting.
The co-standout recently with the farro salad and another always slightly changing menu staple was a funghi pizza ($17) that thankfully didn't have any truffle oil in sight. Somehow the margherita pizza with a brittle crackery crust and not enough mozzarella arrived simultaneously as this funghi pie that could have competed for a "Best Of" title. I'm not sure what happened with the margherita. Fortunately the funghi had a perfect slightly chewy crust with the right amount of puffed spots and chars. But the real key was a fascinating concept I had never seen before: a mushroom doubleheader.
A pesto of crimini mushrooms operates as the sauce, then topped with roasted Far West oyster mushrooms, splotches of stracchino cheese (like a nutty burrata), and shaved garlic. It's genius. It's certainly one of the more fragrant and umami-powered pizzas you'll encounter. Why hasn't anyone thought of this dual mushroom format for funghi pizzas before?
Don't forget Piccino's housemade pastas and you'll easily find a few other vegetarian antipasti and peak produce filled salads. Right now peaches have their moment in the (sun) restaurant with a chilled peach and serpent cucumbers soup gone smoky-Southwest with the addition of chiles. Georgia meets Taos in the Dogpatch.
Even if we love how changing seasons bring us kohlrabi one day and peaches the next, we still appreciate the constants that don't change. Piccino and its funghi pizza and farro salad are always a joy in the yellow building -- rain or sun.
1001 Minnesota St.; 824-4224.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the chef's name as Jacob Town, but he left the restaurant in January of this year. SF Weekly regrets the error.