Our needs were few but specific. The chosen restaurant had to be moderately priced, what with all the trinkets we'd been bestowing. The cuisine had to appeal not only to Eddie and me but also to Eddie's wife, a pregnant woman of (currently) low culinary tolerance. The venue had to be accepting of a couple of scruffy, latter-day Lewis & Clarks. And it had to have an inviting, celebratory attitude and food several steps above the ordinary: In short, it had to be a place worthy of birthday boys and urban conquistadors alike. Antica Trattoria fit the bill.
It's one of those neighborhood hangouts you see all over the city, where the prices are conducive to regular patronage -- and the regulars drop in weekly. The cooking comes straight out of bella Italia, everybody's favorite culinary cradle. Although the operation is of a high starched-linen standard, the place is too sunny not to extend a warm welcome to every sort of visitor. It's generally packed with diners in close quarters, all of them delighted to be supping and sipping and adding to the general din. And unlike the food at most corner trattorias, Antica's isn't fresh from the cellophane and drowned in red glop.
The restaurant is located on the tony western slopes of Russian Hill within a block or two of La Boulange, Real Foods, the Bagelry, and other nearby eateries. The space is spare, simple, and pleasant: tall ceilings, an airy ambience, a few rustic urns for visual stimuli, and a dozen or so sturdy wooden tables dressed in napery, silver, and flowers. This unaffected setting is an ideal match for food that's rich, lusty, and deceptively modest.
The complimentary antipasto is a fine example of the kitchen's exuberance: a bowl of parsley and herb salsa cruda sparkling with springtime freshness and bright undertones of citrus. Served with crisp strips of carrot and red, orange, and yellow peppers, it's an addictive nosh. Follow it up with one of the restaurant's half-dozen starters: per-haps the cipollotti, a bunch of sweet spring onions strewn with spicy crumbled sausage (a surprisingly complementary touch), or the carciofi, in which fresh mint and lemon accentuate the pleasures of thinly sliced artichoke. Another good bet is the carpaccio, a delicate yet robust rendition featuring creamy, melt-in-the-mouth slivers of beefsteak dressed with the pungent flavors of arugula, mustard, capers, and Parmigiano.
A few years ago, dining at Cul de Sac in Rome, I ordered the buffalo-milk mozzarella -- it was during the few weeks out of the year when the stuff is at its freshest -- took one taste, and haven't been the same since: Its smooth, mellow transcendence, achieved by hand at a tiny factory in Sicily, rendered the American-made cow's milk variety forever inedible. Antica's mozzarella, made by a recently immigrated Italian family in the Central Valley and served here as an appetizer, isn't as mind-blowing as the Sicilian version, but it's leagues above other local efforts: tart, alabaster, and deeply satisfying. It's presented in five thick rounds with a brightly colored medley of sun-dried tomato, pickled purple onion, chopped basil, crunchy asparagus tips, braised orange pepper, and sweet red tomato -- a lively foil for the cheese's satiny essence. The ideal eye-opening, tongue-tantalizing starter, though, is the insalata spinaci. Fresh baby spinach leaves come tossed with a vinaigrette that sparkles but doesn't distract from the greens' natural flavor. Puckery goat cheese and sweet, caramelized red onion are strewn across the top, and a dozen sun-kissed cherry tomatoes are thrown in for ballast; the end result is verdant and effervescent all at once.
The pappardelle isn't just the menu's best entree, it's one of the best pasta dishes in the city. Delicate, wide, flat noodles are layered across a platter with chunks of slowly braised duck meat and a simple tomato-based sauce. That's all there is to it, but the tender, flavorful duck and the light but full-bodied sauce, flecked with bits of tomato and a subtle touch of cinnamon, seem to infiltrate the gossamer-thin pasta where other, lesser pasta sauces would sit redundantly atop their noodles. The cinnamon, meanwhile, adds a pleasant unifying warmth to the duck. Another entree, the Maryland striped bass, is impeccably cooked, crisp on the outside and flaky within, but most of the dish's flavor comes from the plump English peas nestling beside it. The lamb medallions, on the other hand, are robust on their own: Grilled until smoky and succulent, they're wrapped in paper-thin strips of prosciutto and served with oregano-accented artichoke meat. Both entrees are considerably enhanced with spinaci, a side dish that deliciously illustrates Antica's simple originality: silky sautéed spinach jazzed up with shaved garlic, golden raisins, and pine nuts, a seemingly incongruous combination that works in its own crunchy, earthy, fragrant way.
The 60-item wine list features predominantly Northern Italian selections, with a dozen Southern vintages, two from Sardinia, and some token California product thrown in as well -- most of it affordable. You can choose from 13 wines by the glass.
And then there's dessert. Cheese and fruit make ideal palate-cleansers, especially when the cheese is pecorino, a sharp sheep's-milk variety that's as old as the Roman Empire. Antica serves a soft but still biting version with crisp, thin slices of pear and apple. (A glass of Warre's 1976 Reserve porto -- one of the venue's nine dessert wines -- is especially mellow alongside the intense cheese.) The plate paves the way for a marvelous, bountiful, sloppy affogato: a tall glass of chewy white-chocolate gelato, amaretto, hazelnuts, and espresso melting together into a rich, yummy mess. Best of all, though, is the panna cotta. This "baked cream" dolce has become as ubiquitous on local dessert menus as crème brûlée, but Antica's version is different from the usual feather-light ephemera: It's every bit as silky smooth as it should be, but adds a dairy-fresh pizzazz unknown to its competitors. The dish is especially wonderful with a candle stuck in its crown, as a chorus of birthday wishes mingles with the other celebratory sounds that float around this neighborhood bastion of superior food.