"Do you have to shake this up?" he wondered, quite irrelevantly, because we hadn't yet been served any food to sauce up. Before I could answer, he was shaking away, and an instant later the cap popped off, sending jets of red all the way to the ceiling. Our table looked like the scene of a mobster's last supper.
You will no longer find bottles of red-pepper sauce on the tables at Pasta II, but the restaurant retains a rough quaintness that suits its location, and it does seem the sort of inconspicuous place where underworld satraps might comfortably convene. The food is heartily traditional and served in generous portions -- a reminder that there are still blue-collar neighborhoods and workers in this boutique city, places where, and people for whom, sophisticated affectation doesn't count for much.
At lunch with the Mystery Writer, I sat gazing out at a tire dealership and a used-car lot, where a mournful beige Chrysler Cordoba (a land battleship of the 1970s so memorably hawked on TV by Ricardo Montalban) loomed like a pop monument over passing traffic. "No," I thought, "I'm really not in Italy; this is distinctly American ugliness."
Better to keep one's attention inside, where the voluble owner showed us the specials board, with its quasi-Gothic lettering, and quickly brought us a large basket of garlic bread, hot from the broiler. The bread was nicely browned, but the taste of raw garlic was a little too biting for me. Blanching the cloves first, or roasting whole heads of garlic and spreading the milder-tasting paste on bread, would have been better.
From the specials board came the pasta Caruso ($8.95) -- named for the opera great, Enrico Caruso, whose stomach ulcer prevented him from eating tomatoes and other acidic foods. The dish consisted of a huge nest of fresh fettuccine tossed with mushrooms, chicken livers, and a sauce of white wine and butter. So much butter, in fact, that a scrap of foil from a cube of butter lurked at the bottom of the pasta, an accidental memento mori. The MW plucked out the offending aluminum with raised eyebrows, but we agreed that otherwise the Caruso was delicious in its mild meatiness.
The lasagna ($8.95) was even meatier, a huge block of pasta, tomato sauce, and ground beef. It had the simple sturdiness of a cheeseburger, and it reminded me of the lasagna my mother used to make, a dish the family would feed on for days. I've had more subtle and innovative lasagna, but for pure peasant punch, Pasta II's version delivers the goods. (One complaint: The pasta was dried out at the edges; too long in the oven?)
Despite the massive portions, we found ourselves ordering dessert. The zabaglione ($2.50) was a pleasant cross between a mousse and a custard; it had a light, sunny scent of lemon. But the apple fritters the Mystery Writer found "horrifying," not least because they were nestled on a bed of rapidly melting Neapolitan ice cream that turned them soggy. Unfinishable.
At dinner several evenings later, I sat at the same table and gazed out upon the same Cordoba, a lugubrious and unwanted orphan. A squad of middle-aged men was sitting at a table behind us, deep in animated conversation: Mafia dons? No, gay men on their way to an 8 o'clock curtain call at Theater Rhinoceros, which is just a few blocks away.
Our server was operatically friendly, explaining about the choices and sauces in an accent that sometimes seemed German, sometimes Italian. (Meanwhile opera played on a radio somewhere in the kitchen; was that Caruso singing?)
The maritata ($3.75), a kind of Italian wedding soup, was a garlicky broth thickened with egg yolks and cream and laced with chunks of chicken and pasta. An enduring virtue of Old World cooking is simplicity; dishes aren't overladen with flavors that clash or cancel each other out. The maritata amounted to chicken in a creamy garlic broth, and that was enough.
Oysters Rockefeller ($8.75 as a first course) consisted of six mollusks on their fist-size half-shells. They'd been garnished with spinach, cheese, and bread crumbs and set briefly under the broiler, which left the oysters cooked rare. I'm a little squeamish about eating under- (or un-) cooked shellfish, but my friend happily devoured them.
We were both a little squeamish about the snails in the fettuccine della casa ($9), although their beautiful helix shells gave a certain flair to the plate. The taste of the snail meat itself was subdued, and it blended smoothly with the spinach and mushrooms in the sauce. The main flavor was garlic, softened by a bit of sauteing.
Chicken Parmesan ($10.75) was enough food for two people. The kitchen stuffed a half-breast with Parmesan cheese, then slathered it with mozzarella and tomato sauce before baking it. On the side was a gigantic pile of pasta with tomato sauce (itself a small meal) and a heaping of pickled vegetables, including cauliflower florets, slices of carrot, and pearl onions.
There was so much food we couldn't finish it, and while our server wrapped up our leftovers, we sat listening to the opera on the radio. The table of middle-aged men hurried out the door to the theater. The Cordoba sat there, sphinxlike.
We stepped back into the evening with the blessings of both server and chef. Unlike most restaurants in today's city (even the small, chef-owned ones), Pasta II still has a bit of that familial, Old World air; the proprietor and his staff try to know their customers, and vice versa. It's not a tight ship, but it doesn't mean to be. It's casual in the best sense.
Pasta II, at 381 South Van Ness in S.F., serves lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.; call 864-4116.