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In Full Bloom 

Da Flora

Wednesday, Mar 7 2001
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My friend John had one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of nights. I won't go into all the details, but by the time it was over he had been driven at gunpoint to the East Bay (the only way I'd go), leapt from a speeding car onto the Bay Bridge, broken his leg, and proved once and for all that his mother was right when she told him never to accept rides from strangers. He survived, of course, and for the next few months the metal pins in his leg led to a more stable, homebound existence, giving him all the time in the world to call people like, say, me. He had an amazing talent for ringing me up while I was in the middle of writing restaurant reviews, and when that subject arose, so would an offer: If I ever needed anyone to come along for the eating part, John, ever selfless, said he might be available. In fact, he'd definitely be available, anytime. So when could he go?

At the time of his last call, the next place on my list was Da Flora, a romantic little spot down on the quiet end of Columbus just beyond the strolling radius of your average North Beach tourist. Da Flora isn't a big-budget production, but rather an intimate, 10-table affair run by owner Flora Gaspar and her partner Mary Beth Marks. Neither is Italian, but Flora lived in Venice for four years, where she gathered recipes and techniques from that city's home kitchens, while Mary Beth does the baking and helps Flora run the front of the house. The result: a friendly, homespun destination that serves simple, hearty, often flawlessly executed dishes that rival anything I've had among the 77,000 or so Italian restaurants in North Beach.

Or, to put it another way: Pretty much everything about Da Flora made us want to go back. Its funky, multihued facade gives way to an eclectic, deeply charming interior -- scarlet walls, marble floors, light fixtures ranging from faux streetlights to the swirled, conical drop fixtures over the front counter, reminiscent of luminous periwinkle shells. On our table, a small cat statue held a platter that bore a tiny votive candle -- yes, it was quite precious. Among our fellow diners (mostly couples), the unspoken sentiment seemed to be that we were ensconced in a special, hidden niche, a place where lovers could play footsie and gaze into each other's eyes amid soft music and warm, soothing light.

But since I was with my decidedly unfeminine, beard-sprouting friend John, I wasn't about to engage in any under-the-table handholding, and assumed the feeling was mutual. Still, I tried to be a gentleman, holding the door for my handsome amigo as he crutched his way outside for a smoke break between courses. At one point, Flora joined us, allowing John to share a few anecdotes from his own time in Europe. He talked about Florence, to which Flora responded, "Oh, those Florentines, they're uppity."

Whether that's true or not, I don't know, and though Flora seems quite capable of taking care of herself, any non-uppity Florentines who'd like to upbraid her for her comment should know they'll have to go through me first. After all, how can a food critic not defend a restaurateur who wins him over from the get-go with bread? Far too often the bread is forgettable, but at Da Flora we started with brilliantly crisp bread sticks and focaccia topped with kosher salt -- so flaky, delicate, and rich with oil it was almost like eating pastry.

Aside from two champagnes, the wine list at Da Flora is exclusively Italian, with a good number of older vintages and such enticing choices as the Allegrini recioto della valpolicella amarone. Sadly, at $75 that was out of my price range, so we asked Mary Beth to recommend a wine that would go with everything yet cost less than $30. Her suggestion: Ceretto dolcetta d'Alba 1998, a dry red that seemed a bit tannic at first sip but breathed wonderfully, exuding hints of black currant and plum by meal's end.

Along the way, we enjoyed seven dishes from Da Flora's small, handwritten menu, and came away disappointed only once. The first item to hit the table was a plate of field greens with shaved fennel, silky-sweet blood oranges, crunchy pecans, creamy, pungent Gorgonzola, and a honey-sherry vinaigrette so flawlessly applied that hardly a molecule of extra dressing remained on the plate once we'd finished. In my opinion, no salad could ever be better, although our radicchio and Belgian endive made an impressive showing as well, combining the two base ingredients with fresh pear, toasted walnuts, Gorgonzola, and a delicate sherry-cider vinaigrette.

Then we ate more focaccia until -- the horror! -- our focaccia was gone. Fortunately, Mary Beth brought us some more, bless her heart. Our third dish, bresaola, translated as paper-thin slices of air-cured beef with black truffle oil and peppery arugula, a simple, adequate nosh that proved a bit more savory and subtle than your typical carpaccio. Our fourth dish, Da Flora's "signature" sweet potato gnocchi, nearly stunned us out of our seats. Its utterly, entirely, almost criminally melting gnocchi with smoked bacon came bathed in a decadent sherry-cream sauce. I'm a big fan of gnocchi and have had some spectacular examples during my years on Earth, but these were the best I've ever tasted. They moved me so deeply that, as I stared across the table, I almost apologized to John for the time I threw his harmonica into the campfire after two road trips' worth of (in my opinion) extremely shabby harping.

Unfortunately, our first pasta -- radicchio, pancetta, and penne in a light cream sauce -- returned me to my mean and unforgiving self, since the radicchio's bitterness overwhelmed the dish, helped only slightly by a pinch of fresh grated Parmesan. Meanwhile, John had a different reaction as he dug into our linguine with sautéed mushrooms, noting with some wonder that the sauce tasted buttery without being buttery. Sometimes that just happens, but in this case the explanation was a liberal dose of white truffle oil -- pungent, bold, and so intensely resonant that it made our bones tingle with delight.

For a moment it seemed like that second pasta had transported me to some strange dimension where bizarre happenings unfold one after the other. For example, as we ate I glanced over at the fellow in the pinstripe suit at the next table and thought, "Holy porcini, that's former mayor/naked shower guy Frank Jordan!" On second glance, it wasn't, so I gazed kitchenward, where bursts of flame leapt toward the ceiling. Was Da Flora on fire? Nah, that was the kitchen expertly grilling our house-cured, spice-rubbed, double-cut pork chop. Served over cabbage braised with pancetta, Gorgonzola, and pan jus, the dish wasn't the most calorie-conscious choice -- but then, folks who count calories probably don't order double-cut pork chops in the first place.

Choosing a dessert was fairly easy, since Da Flora offered only one that night -- a dense, almost brownielike fallen chocolate cake topped with a supremely rich chocolate ganache and a dollop of brandy whipped cream. It was homemade, of course, as was the accompanying pool of savory caramel topped with bits of almond. As we finished, Flora stopped by to fill our water glasses, which is when John told her it was no wonder the place had only one dessert -- anything more would have been overkill. We all had a chuckle, and looking back, that evening still gives me warm, fuzzy feelings. And so, in closing, I'll say this: John, get better, stay out of trouble, and dude, I'm sorry about the harmonica.

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Greg Hugunin

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