When Locanda's Jewish-style artichoke ($6) arrives at the table, at first we mistake it for a sunflower. The leaves explode from a bare, chokeless center, their olive green transformed to gold through hot-oil alchemy. The artichoke is showered in fine threads of nepitella — mint with a rumbly bass voice — and served with a wedge of lemon, which we immediately squeeze overtop. The flared petals are so crisp they've lost their ability to injure, and shatter in the mouth, a fanfare announcing the flower's creamy-centered, vegetal heart.
The artichoke is Craig and Annie Stoll's new restaurant at its best: Roman in its influences, stylish in its simplicity. During the year the Delfina owners spent renovating the old Ramblas space at Valencia and 16th streets, they sent longtime protégé Anthony Strong to Rome to cook at Osteria di San Cesario and soak up whatever cooks are supposed to soak up when they take off on these kinds of research trips. Locanda opened at the beginning of May, and many aspects of the restaurant are still gawky and fumbling, unaided by an instant and continuous crush. But the vision behind the restaurant is sure, and enough of the food is too, that the awkwardness bears waiting out.
The room, for one, is gorgeous. All the previous tenant's vibrant color has been stripped away, replaced by pattern and gloss. Along the walls, white tiles form the intricate diamond patterns of a late-1960s leisure shirt. A glossy black bar runs the length of the front half of the restaurant, and chrome chandeliers in the shape of jacks spray light around the back. The diners filling the arched black chairs represent the sweet spot of San Francisco style, boho flush with cash. The men sport intricate plaids or slim-cut collared shirts, the women close-fitting blouses or clunky wedge shoes. They're the same diners who patronize Flour + Water and Delfina. You get the feeling they all have SFMOMA memberships.
Meals start with slices of crisp focaccia whose interior is more air than solid, and cocktails flavored with Italian spirits, vermouths, and liqueurs (all $10). The flash of orange rind and the finely etched herbaceousness of gin and Carpano Antica start off the Smoke & Spice, followed by the smoke from a peaty Islay whisky; the prickle of seltzer bubbles and pricklier spice of ginger, rye, and Strega make the Nonna del Diavolo one of San Francisco's best summer drinks.
Locanda's menu seems well tailored to the size of the room, listing half a dozen appetizers, a sizeable clutch of pastas, and several grilled and roasted meats. Strong seeds the menu with enough classic regional dishes — the Jewish-style artichokes, egg-drop soup called stracciatella, Bucatini all'amatriciana — to justify calling Locanda a Roman-style restaurant. He makes a good rigatoni alla carbonara ($15), with slivers of crisped guanciale clinging to ridged tubes of housemade pasta, and a sauce no more ornate than pork fat emulsified into egg yolks and electrified with pecorino and black pepper.
Still, the Roman dishes are more like a set of culinary allusions than an attempt at museum-quality authenticity, the equivalent of peppering a Fourth of July speech with Adams and Jefferson quotes. San Francisco's own Cal-Italian style, defined in part by Delfina, is just as dominant here. Ribbons of fettuccine ($17) looped around braised rabbit and bitter dandelion greens, their flavors surprisingly fragile, intensified only by a splash of tart, fresh wine-grape juice. And lamb chops scottaditto ($26), sliced a half-inch thick and grilled quickly over charcoal, were fragrant with rosemary, coriander seed, and smoke. We picked the bones clean, alternating bites of lamb with leaves of stiff-spined escarole that had melted under the heat of an anchovy-spiked pan sauce.
My meals there, however, were peppered with flaws. One night the problem was salt: A side dish of erbette (mixed greens, $8) braised with garum — fish sauce, as central to the food of ancient Rome as it is to Thailand now — was so salty it was painful to eat, and salt blemished a juicy leg of guinea fowl sheathed in prosciutto and rolled around lardo ($21). That one hurt. Another night, the problem was neglect; it's one thing to call pasta al dente, but a spaghetti with fava leaves and curds of ricotta ($17) was undeniably crunchy, and there was nothing in the dish to give the peppery, earthy fava greens some other dimension. Another side of sautéed carrots with grapes ($8) was just, well, dim.
More coltish than the food was the service, which wasn't yet up to the $70-per-person level. On one visit, the manager assigned our server three new tables at once, so she dropped us after the appetizers arrived. It took us 10 minutes after our entrées came to snag her for glasses of wine to drink with quickly cooling food; the floor staff hustled around us while we sat there, looking for help. Another night's waiter had his patter down, and his descriptions of the dishes and wines were spot on. He impressed us, too, when he caught the food runners delivering two courses to our table at the same time, sending the excess food away so the flow of our meal was never interrupted.
If there's a strength emerging at Locanda, it's Strong's delicate way with what the Romans call the quinto quarto (an animal's "fifth quarter"), aka offal. Chilled slices of tongue ($12) curled around shavings of celery and gaeta olives, with salsa verde drizzled overtop; the smooth, pale sips of meat played the role of the quiet tenor at the center of a polyphonic motet. No zombie, I am a reluctant eater of brains. Yet on the night I found the trippa alla romana I'd hoped to order had taken the day off, I ordered the lamb brains with artichokes ($12) instead. They were cut into chunks the size of quail's eggs, breaded and deep-fried, then showered in fried capers and sage leaves. Inside the rumpled, golden crust, the meat was no more substantial than whipped cream. It hardly mattered whether Strong had learned the technique in Rome or San Francisco — the brains were internationally exceptional.