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Big Surprise 

Tracking down a cookie leads us to a marvelous and unexpected dinner

Wednesday, Jul 21 2004
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Robert and I had lunched on soup and sandwiches before attending an Italian wine tasting sponsored by the Slow Food organization. But the sandwiches were the generously sized banh mi sold at Saigon Sandwiches on Larkin, and the soup was a huge bowl of samusa dok at Burma Superstar on Clement, brimming with hunks of samusas and falafals. We'd tried to walk the meal off by browsing along Clement and taking a much brisker walk in the environs of Fort Mason, where the wine tasting was to be held, but we swore as we entered the place that we'd sample only the wine -- and judiciously.

But that was before we discovered that the charcuterie had been trucked to the tasting by its creator, Paul Bertolli of Oliveto, and that next to the table groaning with hams, salami, and pâtés was another laden with beautiful Italian cheeses, including perfect, melting examples of robiola and brescianella. We broke down and sampled these delights. Sampled in ample quantities, in fact.

That was it for the day, we swore. But there was another display, close to the dessert and sparkling wines, covered with chocolates, tiny biscotti, and an assortment of cookies. The sweets were delicate looking, and I tried a few. One of them was so delicious, a ball of marzipan dusted in powdered sugar, encrusted with sliced almonds, and hiding a preserved cherry in its heart, that I couldn't resist popping a few more. I pointed the cookie out to Robert as my favorite, and he also fell prey to its charms.

So much so that, a couple of weeks later, we both agreed after an Italian dinner in North Beach that what we really wanted for dessert was more of those cookies. Robert obligingly drove over to the Marina, to their purveyor, Emporio Rulli Gran Caffé, the local branch of a famed bakery-cafe in Larkspur, but we were too late: The sign on the door read "Chiuso."

A few days later Robert called me, annoyed: He'd gone by the little Rulli, Il Caffé at Union Square on Stockton and Post streets, within walking distance of his work, and found that it didn't carry the cookies. This had become a quest. I suggested going to the Chestnut Street Gran Caffé for breakfast or lunch, but he declined -- breakfast was inconvenient, and he goes to the gym during lunch.

And so the matter stood; we'd reached an impasse. Until Robert rang again, this time with some excitement: He'd just found out that Rulli was now serving dinner. I think we went that very night. We were much taken with the large, airy room, with its long coffee bar, big mirrors, and shiny modernistic chrome tables and chairs, reminiscent of the art deco interiors in Bertolucci's The Conformist. The most striking element of Rulli's design is a painted ceiling mural, in lush pastels and gilt, from which hangs a dazzling chandelier.

We were handed a one-page menu, headed "Digustare," with a parade of about a dozen dishes listed single-file, starting with Zuppa di Giorno at $5.75 and ending with Cozza, mussels steamed with white wine, garlic, parsley, and chili, at $10.95. There were no divisions into starters, pastas, or main courses. We swiftly chose three dishes to start (tuna-filled Calabrian peppers, a plate of salumi, and fried oysters) and three more to follow (a risotto with mushrooms, roasted quail on chickpea purée, and penne Bolognese). When we ordered, Robert threw in a request for some fried olives.

There was a short list of Italian wines by the glass, but no other wine list. However, a corner of the restaurant, tucked away between the espresso bar and the pastry case, is lined with wine bottles, and Rulli adds a $10 corkage fee to the retail price of the wine at meals. Robert reported that most of the wines were big reds, rather overpowering for the food we'd chosen, but he found a nice, light Allegrini Valpolicella, priced at only $14, with the corkage a reasonable $24. (Still, the limited choice of wines and low corkage make this a tempting place to BYO.)

Our starters arrived before we'd gotten plates or silverware, and we stared at them longingly as the table settings appeared. The plump red peppers stood out brilliantly against their white plate, glistening with oil. Seven fried oysters swam on a lake of creamy golden aioli, sprinkled with minced, bright green chives. The salumi were less striking, though prettily arranged: four slices each of four different meats. And the fried olives waited patiently for us in a small white bowl.

When the utensils arrived, the feasting began. And I do mean feasting: We were astonished by the freshness, the crispness, the knowingness of the cooking. The peppers came filled with a spicy mixture made from the best Italian canned tuna, with fat capers tucked into their bases. The thin batter of the oysters shattered at the bite, and their aioli was bright with lemon. The olives, just as carefully battered and fried, were entrancing -- salty, juicy bites that set off the excellent charcuterie: a pale pink French-style ham of the first quality; a dryer, slightly spicy ham that we were told was the German-style Speck; some rosy prosciutto; and a delicious, paprika-dusted salami that we found, upon inquiry, came from Niman Ranch. We enjoyed them with slices of baguette and butter that had taken us only three requests to receive.

"The staff reminds me of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," I said when our server brought our three main courses before the dishes from our first course had been cleared and new plates and silverware fetched, temporarily paralyzing him. (Later, after we'd finished enjoying our dinner and exclaiming over its brilliance, I pointed out that if the food hadn't been so good, the clueless service would really have annoyed us. "But we don't even care! We're having such a good time!")

The food continued to astonish us: It was several cuts above what I thought we'd receive in a pastry-and-panini emporium. In fact, it was better than any Italian food I'd had in San Francisco except at such famous places as Delfina and Incanto, and it approached their level of sophistication. "I expected more panini, some salads, and some oversauced pastas," I said, as we savored the perfectly cooked risotto, served in a special wide-rimmed bowl (the chef thought we'd waited too long for it, and sent us out a gift plate of brescianella with fat roasted cherries); the penne coated with a lovely, authentic, creamy Bolognese; and especially the plump, disjointed quail, set in a surprising chickpea purée whose Middle Eastern allure was increased by a thin sauce in which Robert thought he tasted saffron. I demurred, and we questioned the server, who brought out the chef. His explanation was a further surprise: It seemed that for another dish he'd prepared some weeks before, he'd made a crock of pickled radicchio, and the sauce incorporated some of its leftover marinade, which had a nice bite (from fennel and red pepper) but was too syrupy to reuse in pickling. ("That would make a hell of a recipe," I whispered. "First, pickle some radicchio ....")

He replied to our praise of the Bolognese by telling us that it included chicken liver as well as veal and pork, and told us that he changed about 30 percent of his menu from week to week, on Wednesdays. Gradually he'd be enlarging the list and, eventually, adding some cooked dishes to the salads and panini available for lunch.

The cut cake and tart selection, viewable in the pastry case, was, we heard, sadly depleted from its lunchtime largess; we shared a plate of cookies, featuring the marzipan-and-cherry creation that had led us to this amazing meal. They were good, but something of an anticlimax.

I couldn't wait to return. I made Robert promise not to post our discovery on Chowhound.com (where he's a regular) immediately; he agreed, especially in view of the service. "They'd either be overwhelmed or the chef will be plucked for another place. Dinner's not even listed on their Web site yet."

While I waited for the dinner menu to change, I stopped by Emporio Rulli for lunch with Tommy, where I was surprised to find the service as inept as it had been at dinner: I counted five servers (a couple admittedly anchored to their positions behind the coffee bar and pastry counter) and only four tables occupied by diners, but it was fully half an hour before I got my latte, and the panini we sampled were only OK. Tommy's prosciutto-and-spinach panino was undergrilled, and I didn't like the leathery egg pancake or the indifferent cheese in my breakfast panino. I tried some potato-and-leek soup that tasted nice but was tepid. I'd expected better.

I warned Peter and Anita that we were going to get better food than service at dinner, but in the intervening couple of weeks, major changes had occurred: The chrome tables were now covered with snowy white tablecloths, and there were a couple of older, completely professional servers on hand. Dinner was still a delight, though not quite up to the glowing memory of my first. We started, a little more elaborately and expensively than that earlier meal, with a plate of good salami topped with a fresh herb salad (less showy than the four-variety plate we'd had before); a terrific spaghetti alla chitarra sauced with lots of guanciale (cured pig's jowl), olives, and Sun Gold tomatoes; another perfect risotto, this time topped deliciously with chunks of braised oxtail and tiny diced carrots; and a rerun of the irresistible salty fried olives. Our mains were a rigatoni with sausage, peppers, and ricotta salata that didn't quite come together; a small, tasty bistecca alla pizzaiola whose sauce was like a fresh tomato relish; and a tender, white-flaked petrale sole, sautéed until golden, with leeks and potatoes, sweet and mild. For dessert we had another chunk of pungent brescianella, this time paired with sweet roasted peaches, a fig-and-custard tart, and an assortment of little pastries, including a lovely baba au rhum and a tiny cream puff stuffed with pistachio custard. There was nothing quite as surprising that night as the quail with its intriguing fillip of spicy sauce, but dinner at Emporio Rulli still felt like an exciting discovery.

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Meredith Brody

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