It's difficult to visit a restaurant for the first time without having a preconceived notion of what it's going to be like — especially in this age of multiple Internet postings about places that are still under construction, and amateur critics competing to be the first to post their impressions of a meal before it's even digested.
But all I knew about Poesia, which opened in the Castro last spring, was that it was Italian and its name means "poetry." Its location, on an often noisy and crowded block of 18th Street, was rather uninspiring; restaurants come and go frequently there without adding much to San Francisco's reputation as a gourmet mecca.
But once you've ascended the staircase that leads to Poesia's second-story space in a homey old building, you're far from the madding crowd. The room is painted in warm gold, with a banquette along one wall upholstered in understated brown flowered fabric. The linens are orange. A bay-windowed section has tables overlooking the street and a long bar, behind which lurks a snug space with a few seats and a shelf of poetry books that explain not only Poesia's name but also one of the subtitles on its sign: "Italian Restaurant, Full Bar & Poetry Lounge."
We were given a table at the banquette beneath two striking portraits one of my companions correctly identified as Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists executed in a controversial criminal case in the '20s. An unusual choice of art, but the case inspired poetry from such celebrated writers as William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Allen Ginsberg.
We were interested in the short stanzas printed on the brief one-page menu, which we were told changed frequently. It contained four sections — antipasti, insalate e zuppe, pasta, and secondi — with four dishes offered in each. That night's specials were an additional salad, sea bass, and rack of lamb.
Our server, Roberto, prepares many of the pastas by hand, which we learned when we asked him what fileji are (we ordered them after he described the laborious process of hand-rolling pasta ribbons into crescent shapes). But first we were surprised and delighted by our first courses. The gnocchi silani ($14), made with ricotta, were among the tenderest and lightest gnocchi we've ever encountered, and were dressed with an exquisite and equally light touch in a lemony sauce with sautéed cherry tomatoes. The tortino al carciofi ($12), a fried quichelike cake of fresh artichoke and mozzarella, was similarly delicate yet full of flavor. The special salad ($9) featured lettuce carefully balanced with celery, ripe pear, and pecorino: savory, crunchy, and sweet, yet salty and acidic. A gondola-shaped dish bore a slightly spicy, unusual soup of puréed garbanzo beans ($8), with soft homemade pasta buttons hidden within and olive oil glistening on top. The Italian bread on the table was also unusually fresh and good. Dio is in the details. We all felt as though we'd stumbled into an unusually good neighborhood restaurant in Italy.
San Francisco boasts a number of excellent Italian restaurants, and Poesia is serving dishes, whether homey (the soup), sophisticated (the gnocchi and artichoke cake), or simple yet thoughtful in construction (the unclichéd salad) that would hold their own among them.
Roberto told us that most of the dishes on the menu reflected the Calabrian home of Poesia's owner, Francesco d'Ippolito — a veteran, with his crew, of many North Beach restaurants, including Steps of Rome. What Roberto didn't tell us, but we learned later, is that he himself was once Francis Ford Coppola's private chef.
Italian movies, mostly of the '50s and '60s, were projected silently on one wall. We enjoyed glimpsing the vigorous gestures and poetry in motion of Alberto Sordi in Un Americano a Roma as we dug into our equally vigorous main courses. The fileji al ragu di maiale ($19) was a real Italian grandmotherly dish. The small, al dente rolled pasta was smothered in a hearty tomato sauce full of pork, some still attached to short lengths of rib, and lots of pungent roasted garlic. The unusually shaped ravioli di castagna ($20) — they looked like translucent Chinese dumplings, lined up on a long rectangular plate — were stuffed with a fragile yet earthy filling of puréed chestnuts and Crotonese pecorino from Sardinia. The classic parmigiana di melanzane ($19), eggplant parmesan, which often turns out to be an inelegant sponge full of oil, at Poesia was almost poetic: light, almost airy, under a sweet blanket of fresh tomato sauce.
By this time — we'd chosen to dine early on a Wednesday evening — we were pleased to see that the front of the room was filling up. We were even more pleased to see our desserts. We tried a freshly made cannolo ($10), the crisp shell filled with lightly sweetened ricotta and juicy blackberries and dusted with shaved chocolate; and the rarely seen salame di cioccolato ($10), oddly described as a "chocolate cloud" when actually it was much like the salame of its title, a densely packed, almost candylike confection of nuts and dark chocolate, sliced and served with roasted walnuts and house-baked biscotti.
But the dessert of our dreams was the unusual delizia all' arancia ($10), described as a Grand Marnier tiramisú, but more like an ethereal orange-flavored mousse with a few textural flourishes of boozy bits of cake. We were treated, also, to tiny glasses of a housemade liqueur made with tangerines that was like limoncello, but even better. We were in a citrus-induced poetic state, and 18th Street suddenly seemed like its Italian translation, Diciottesima Strada.