The neighborhood of Cow Hollow, bounded by the Marina and Pacific Heights, has a hallowed history when it comes to barhopping, however. In the late '80s and early '90s, yuppies frequented three bars at the intersection of Fillmore and Greenwich. They began calling the intersection the Bermuda Triangle, where drunks ventured and disappeared, at least until the following day.
The opening of Betelnut has created one of two cool places to eat. The other is Pane e Vino, a charming former carriage house on Steiner -- but we knew something about Union had changed when we engineered a parking spot near the front of the restaurant. Once inside, we found an authentic little Italian trattoria with homey yellow walls, a tile floor, and white-clothed tables.
Because of its popularity with both locals and tourists, Pane e Vino is packed, with more customers waiting in the wings. Diners squish into two rooms and waiters rush back and forth from an exposed kitchen in the back. Even with a reservation, we were crushed into a tiny waiting area in the front, then moved to a little waiting area near the kitchen, then shoehorned into a table that was too small for four. Finally we were moved to a table that was sort of big enough, after the waiter complained to the maitre d' that he would be bumping into one of us all night.
But once we installed ourselves at our tight little table, and the crusty Italian loaf and tumblers of wine arrived, we were happy. We started with a glass of 1995 Napa Valley Whitford chardonnay ($6), a flat and ordinary white that tasted better when warmed. The Schug 1996 North Coast pinot noir ($6), while young, was full and fruity, tasting of cherries. The wine list specializes in foreign and domestic reasonably priced Italian wines, including pinot grigios, barbarescos, and sangioveses.
The menu lists a large assortment of rustic antipasti, pastas, grilled meats, and entrees. Antipasto Assortito was a popular appetizer ($7.95), ordered at several tables. A beautiful melange of colors and textures, it arrived as a plate laden with salami, sliver-thin slices of pork loin, bread sticks cleverly wrapped in prosciutto, mixed roasted peppers, smoky roasted eggplant, various peppers and pickles, a wonderfully charred bruschetta, and a delicately flavored bean salad. Bresaola con Rucola ($7.75), dry cured beef, was sliced paper thin, topped with arugula and sweet onions, and tossed with a touch of vinaigrette. Grilled eggplant ($7.95), served with a tangle of sauteed red onions, balsamic vinegar, and goat cheese, provided a pleasing contrast of tart and sweet tastes.
Having feasted on appetizers, we were disappointed to encounter an overcooked and undersalted risotto special only barely flavored with wild mushrooms ($12.75), and a rigatoni with pomodoro that did not taste of fresh tomatoes ($8.25). Perhaps it was an off night for the restaurant, since other reviewers have praised the pasta dishes here. And, while pasta is listed as a second course -- typical of Italian menus -- you could definitely make a meal of it.
We, however, moved to other entrees. Our waiter presented a whole grilled and baked striped bass ($19.95) to the table, then removed it and brought it back filleted. The unusual but brilliant addition of fennel seeds added dimension to the delicate and succulent fish. Grilled rack of lamb with peppery and slightly sweet red wine sauce ($18.95) arrived as three generous chops, their seared exteriors lending a smoky, charred flavor to the meat. Both dishes were accompanied by perfectly roasted potato halves, whole baby carrots, and Swiss chard.
For dessert, our waiter recommended two favorites: the inevitable tiramisu ($5); and the lyrical Affogato al Caffe, a goblet of white chocolate ice cream with espresso and whipped cream ($5). The delicate tiramisu passed the test of non-soggy ladyfingers. We loved the heavy dusting of cocoa on top, the lingering taste of cinnamon, and the rich mascarpone cheese filling. The ice cream was heavenly. It tasted like something a frosty Starbucks frappuccino could only aspire to be.
Service was prompt, despite the crowds and a noise level so high that sometimes the waiter couldn't hear our orders. He did not hesitate to make recommendations when asked, and his support staff was unobtrusive yet efficient.
When we left we realized we'd been at our table for 2 1/2 hours, and had never been asked to leave or hurry, despite a small but never-ending line of waiting customers. Satisfied, we drove home slowly down Union, taking in the pretty shops and strings of lights.
Pane e Vino
3011 Steiner (at Union), 346-2111. Open Monday through Thursday for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday for dinner only 5 to 10 p.m. Wheelchairs can come to the back door. Parking: valet available Wednesday through Saturday nights, if you drive to the Balboa Cafe at the corner of Filbert and Fillmore streets; otherwise, it's on the street. Reservations: recommended, especially weekends -- you may wait even with a reservation. Muni: 41, 45 on Union, 22 on Fillmore. Sound level: noisy.