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Flowering in the Mission 

Unusual Ligurian dishes and fabulous desserts await the food-obsessed at Farina

Wednesday, Sep 5 2007

It's a sensation that foodies chase continually in search of the new new thing: being in the hot restaurant while it's hottest. Conventions of restaurant criticism preclude reviewers being the first visitors through the door, which is fine with me. Let the place get its growing pains out of the way. During my two dinners at Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana, open less than three months in a singularly food-obsessed neighborhood in a singularly food-obsessed city, I had the entirely agreeable sensation of being in a hot restaurant whose hotness was not just the function of its newness.

Farina's construction, in a building that had housed Anna's Danish Cookies for decades, seemed to take forever. There's no vestige of the original occupant to be seen — well, that's not entirely true. A few circles were cut out of the old bright red-and-white sign, and are scattered about the place as tabletops. But there's a new, undulating window-wall façade, lined inside with a wood-and-stone banquette, set in a whitewashed room under tall ceilings opened up to the wooden rafters. There's a long bar, separated from the dining area by a tall divider laden with a carefully curated assortment of wineglasses and bottles. Students of the art of lighting will be pleased with an equally carefully curated assortment, including two bright-red, spidery chandeliers in the front of the room, and several avant-garde sconces and chrome fixtures boasting white linen shades in the back. Racks of bakery shelves stacked with bread line one wall of the mostly enclosed kitchen. The place feels chic, but not aggressively so.

The menu features the cooking of Liguria, a region on the northwest coast of Italy whose capital is Genoa (referenced in Italian as Genova on the front of the sporty brown T-shirts worn by the servers). The cooking of the region is much less familiar to us than that of, say, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, even Veneto.

At our first dinner, we were irresistibly drawn to two dishes we'd never seen before: cappon magro vecchia Genova, described as a traditional Genovese chilled layered salad with halibut, lobster, mussels, shrimp, cauliflower, carrot, green beans, potato, and beets, and the focaccia di Recco, another Ligurian specialty. The big slab of supple, crisp-edged pizza-like dough came topped with stracchino cheese and curls of Rovagnati ham — instead of sandwiched between two layers of the doughy bread, as the menu had it — and we loved it. The layered salad was more interesting than totally successful. Its ingredients were diced and minced and combined into beet-stained uniformity, resulting in a slightly grainy, fishy-tasting potato salad. In addition to slices of a country bread, we were also treated to warm onion focaccia.

We went on to share two pastas from a list of five, and two secondi (mains), from four. The mandilli al pesto was sublime: handmade, thin "handkerchief pasta" cut in shapes mimicking its name, drenched in a classic, lovely, bright-green Genovese pesto. Utterly delicious. I was not as beguiled by the cappellacci di melanzane burro fuso, handmade ravioli filled with a not-very-compelling sludge of eggplant, summer squash, and brie, in a thyme–brown butter sauce. We tried a variety of glasses from an interesting wine list that features Italian and Californian wines (as well as selections from a full bar and signature non-alcoholic drinks).

For once, the tired but almost inevitable phrase used in reviewing Italian restaurants — that the main courses are not as interesting as the antipasti and the pastas — need not be trotted out. The filetto di manzo Piemontese con funghi porcini, a lovely piece of filet mignon, came in a sticky, meaty deglazing sauce rich with porcini mushrooms and Parmigiano, and the tagliata di tonno nostrano al basilico con pomodori, burrata, e riduzione all'aceto balsamico was an equally carefully cooked chunk of yellowfin tuna, rare at its heart, well served by its companions of heirloom tomatoes, buttery burrata cheese, and a tart-sweet balsamic reduction.

But still better were our three desserts, all of which were astonishingly good. "There's no chocolate on this list," one of my companions observed, but there was, hiding inside a pastry: tortelli dolci al gianduia, a thin skin of crisp cinnamon-and-orange-flavored dough hiding molten chocolate-hazelnut cream, served with three little glasses containing orange, raspberry, and espresso sauce. The latte dolce fritto were impossibly delicate sweet milk fritters, like the old-fashioned crema fritta, but lighter, served with a refreshing, jewel-like citrus salad and blood-orange vanilla sauce — genius. The semifreddo al croccante di mandorle combined several of my favorite flavors (almonds, orange, caramel) to excellent effect: housemade almond ice cream–like semifreddo, with orange crème anglaise and citrus caramel.

Four of us returned for a second dinner. We began with two classic salumi pairings, Parma prosciutto with ripe figs and coppa with burrata, as well as a variation on the focaccia we'd tried the first time, this one topped with tomato sauce, capers, oregano, and a scattering of anchovies. We also had a terrific salad, insalata Catalana con tonno fresco, chunks of citrus and rosemary-scented tuna confit mixed with chopped heirloom tomatoes, sliced yellow Romano beans, diced red onion, and fresh basil, the whole dish cool and summery, served in a colorful, generous heap.

We went on to three pastas, only one of which was as perfect as the pesto-soaked handkerchief pasta we'd had before. It was another classic, the pansotti al sugo di noci, handmade tortelli filled with ricotta cheese tinted pale green with chopped borage, drenched in a rich cream sauce gritty with chopped walnuts. The tagliatelle con polpettine di carne alla genovese featured long, supple strands of lightly sage-flavored tagliatelle, with two not-very-interesting meatballs and a light, fresh tomato sauce. The tortelli di mozzarella e basilico al sugo di tonno arrived lukewarm, and its orderer was lukewarm, too, about the dish — mozzarella-and-basil-filled tortelli heaped with chopped tuna, diced tomato, capers, and taggiasche olives. She was also somewhat appalled by our selection of two vegetable sides, rather dull, unseasoned sautéed Blue Lake green beans, and undercooked roasted potatoes with cipolline onions, both ordered in deference to the fact that there was very little on the menu to feed our vegetarian friend.

I felt obliged to try the three sweets that I hadn't had before, ignoring the siren call of those we'd tried. Bypassing the sweet milk fritters caused real pain. But I was soothed immediately, because all three, again, were amazing: a crostata (tart) of peaches and raspberries, served with peach mascarpone gelato; a combination of two housemade frozen treats, amaretti gelato and an amazingly bright, tart berry granita; and a beautiful panna cotta, layered with blackberry puree and chopped blackberries, topped with an artistic flower made of blackberry-tinted whipped cream, and sided by two little blackberry jelly candies. I was astounded to learn that the same chef, Paolo Laboa, is responsible for both the savory and the sweet dishes — unusual in most restaurant kitchens, especially because his savory dishes seemed rustic in presentation and the desserts were plated with architectural flair. I was also pleasantly astounded to realize we'd been at our table, in a relaxed and happy fashion, for over three hours. Farina means flour, and Farina is certainly flowering in the Mission.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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