The latest addition to this stellar group is Bar Bambino, which identifies itself as a cafe and wine bar. Bar Bambino's clean-lined plate-glass front gleams conspicuously on its rather ratty block of 16th Street in the Mission, as though only one tooth in a smile received a dazzling porcelain veneer. You'll smile upon entering, too, charmed by the fresh, simple, modern design: clean, unpolished pale wood on the walls; a long bar; and simple cafe-style chairs and tables, devoid of tablecloths, but dressed up by the designer touch of leather bands wrapped around rolled napkins. (We note that the servers are quick to take the thin leather straps away; they would look equally chic wrapped around a wrist.) The bar takes up half the front room, but a narrow passageway alongside the closed kitchen leads to a smaller back room that's lent light and interest by one of the nicest surprises of the place, a small enclosed garden that's especially alluring for lunch. A large communal table is set in the front window, lit by a witty rectangular chandelier made out of wine bottles, a duplicate of which lights the back room. Another alluring design element is a small glassed-in room, the only open element of the kitchen, displaying Bar Bambino's collection of salumi and cheeses. The chic, cosmopolitan, yet friendly place has been so popular since giorno uno that reservations are suggested for dinner, even during the week.
The signage may say cafe and wine bar, but the multi-page menu reads restaurant. It is so tempting that it would take strength of character to restrict oneself to a snack to complement your choice from the all-Italian wine list. (Beer drinkers will be happy to know that the national focus has been relaxed in this area; you'll find German, Belgian, English, Czech, even Californian labels, alongside Moretti.) There are nine dishes listed under antipasti, insalate, e zuppe; four different-sized options for sampling salumi, and as many for trying cheese; ten panini, followed by nine bruschette; seven pastas; five piatti, or main courses; nine contorni, or sides; and even, for the curious connoisseur, a list of seven olive oils, including one each from Napa and Sonoma along with the Italians, available for tasting in one-ounce servings, with Petaluma's Della Fattoria ciabatta, for between $1.75 and $3 an ounce.
At our first dinner, the four of us began with the largest salumi platter on offer. Alongside the glassed-in pantry, a blackboard listed that night's array of salami, ham, and other cured meats nine of them, with notes as to their origin a gratifying number of which were house-cured. Five different meats were arrayed in neat rows on a wooden plank: paper-thin rounds of sweet soppressatta and Genovese and Toscano salami; clumps of especially succulent, thicker-cut prosciutto from a Midwestern purveyor; and curls of house-cured pancetta, which shocked with its creamy white fat, obscuring thin bands of meat, but delighted the palate, sensuously melting on the tongue. We wished that the other antipasti we'd ordered had arrived with the salumi, because they were chosen as contrasting accompaniments: a plate of assorted breads, a dish of roasted olives, and a salad of mixed bitter lettuce chicories alla romana. We also wished that the menu had tipped us off to the fact that the salad was dense with bits of sauteed pancetta, because one of us was a vegetarian, but she bravely pushed the bacon to one side and soldiered on.
She was happier with her pasta, trenne with zucchini fritti and basil, a delicious, rich dish whose creamy sauce rendered the frying of the zucchini almost moot. The other vegetarian entrée we tried, the polpette di melanzane, balls of chopped eggplant with pine nuts and raisins in a light tomato sauce, was superb. The most surprising dish was the lesso rifatto con porri, which from its description ("beef brisket and short ribs, long braised with leeks and olive oil") we thought would be a sturdy stew. Instead we got a bowl of shreds and tatters of meat, some meltingly soft, some crisp-edged, in a lake of oil: instantly seductive, like a treat from grandmother's kitchen, or the "brownies" (browned edges) sold at some barbecue joints. We also loved the cotechino con lenticchie, three pillowy slices of boiled fresh sausage atop a toothsome stew of lentils with diced carrots. All the piatti are served a la carte (and in not-overwhelming portions), so we also ordered wonderful grilled asparagus dusted with Parmesan, and garlicky roasted potatoes.
There was room left for a cup of dense bittersweet chocolate pudding, with cream poured on at the table; a ball of vanilla gelato upsold with four preserved cherries for an additional buck (20-year-old aged balsamic vinegar would run you two bucks) that made its orderer think that life was worth living; a classic affogato (espresso over gelato); and a lovely olive oil cake with grilled nectarines that could have spent another minute on the grill but couldn't have been sweeter. When a caffe americano was ordered, we were offered an extra refinement that was new to us: did we want northern Italian or southern Italian roast? The darker southern roast was chosen.
A second meal was equally successful, though once more the roasted beet salad and the bread plate that we wanted to arrive with the salumi was late in coming. This time the smaller platter we ordered looked as generous as the first; the excellent finnochio (fennel and lavender salami) and a rerun of the pancetta we requested from the board were augmented, again, by the Toscano and Genovese salami and the velvety prosciutto. We would have liked more of the beets, hiding under a drift of arugula, with hazelnuts and some creamy goat cheese, but the tartly dressed salad went well with the two lush bruschette it arrived with: dark, earthy ginepro, chopped chicken liver, and the baccala mantecato, salt cod mashed with potato. The baccala was especially generous, heaped on its two crisp toasts.
We were happily surprised by the meaty taste of the sugo di coniglio over pappardelle; many rabbit sauces taste bland, with not even the memory of rabbit. The sturdy bucatini, thickish spaghetti, with kale, pancetta, and raisins, was a touch too al dente, but still pleased its orderer. And we all loved the maiale al latte, chunks of pork shoulder slow-braised in milk, touched with sage and lemon, which went particularly well with a shared side of fagioli all'uccelletto (white beans with garlic and sage).
We preferred the citrus polenta cake sided with a mountain of mascarpone to the somewhat disappointing all-Italian three-cheese plate we assembled from a international selection of ten or so. None of them (tomino, a goat cheese rubbed with wine must, also available baked with prosciutto as an antipasti; roccolo, from cow's milk; and the sheep's milk maccagnetta) thrilled us. But the total experience at Bar Bambino, from the setting to almost all of the food we'd sampled, had. Baby, we'd be back. Often.