I remember, long ago, a stagette party in Little City's back banquet room, 24 bohemian women (ranging in age from pre-beatnik to post-punk) feasting on pasta and Italian red to celebrate the imminent marriage of our friend Shirley ("Shirley Goodnessandmercy," we called her); we'd have been less cheerful to know that after the baby's birth, Shirl and Charlie and Mister Cat would move a thousand miles north of North Beach. And there was the long evening when the semifamous Montana mystery writer paused en route to L.A., where he was stalking a movie deal for his last and worst novel; his friends met up with him at Little City and shared plates of tequila-marinated "prawns borracho," and the guest of honor downed shot after shot of peppermint schnapps. The movie deal fell through; later, Jim stopped writing. Little City, too, slowly declined in the '90s, crying for a fresh coat of paint and some fresh spate of energy.
But about 18 months ago, it changed ownership, and stepped onto the comeback trail with a new executive chef, Jeffery Hicks, a veteran of Cafe Pescatore, the Armani Restaurant, and Half Moon Bay's acclaimed Pasta Moon. I revisited the revived Little City with lapsed private eye Nick, lapsed line-chef Mary Ann, and lapsed goat-rancher TJ. We were seated in a lapse of luxury, a slightly cramped table in the dining space adjoining the brick-walled bar area, with a big clean window affording a view of the street and the handful of sidewalk tables.
On this Friday night, every white-naped table inside and out was filled -- couples and groups in their 30s and 40s, fresh-faced or jaded, casual or vaguely chic. I slipped into the back dining room to admire the exhibit of Jerry Stoll's wonderful old b&w photos of North Beach in the beat era: Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce, Pony Poindexter and Judy Tristano, Bob Kaufman and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti .... The beats, who were great restaurant-table yakkers, might have enjoyed Little City's eclectic ambient music mix (swing-era jazz, anguished new jazz, '50s crooners, reggae) but not at its conversation-killing, fake-frat-party volume, undiminishing even as the night latens, as the Little City empties, as the vanishing of the well-fed, well-fled flesh fills echoic void with yearnings for Prez, Lady, wookie-voiced Dex growling soft round-midnight cadences, muted late-night-ragas of the West ....
The menu has retained the "old" Little City's emphasis on antipasti and pasta. Trying a host of small plates is a great way to eat -- if the kitchen's any good, you'll like most of them, and none lasts so long that you grow inured to it. The waitress tried to sell us on main courses (prosciutto-stuffed pork chops, orange and saffron seafood stew, et al.) but nobody -- including the nearby tables -- seemed to be buying. The array of 20 appetizers is just too alluring.
The legendary "prawns borracho" are banished from the current menu -- "They're too '80s," explained the new owner, working the room. (I wanted to argue that "grazing" is also very '80s and we're still doing it.) "I'm in the food business," he said, raising Mary Ann's hackles with his tone, "and I know what will sell." But Little City's "signature" antipasto, baked brie and roasted garlic ($9.50), is still available. If you've never tried this now-familiar dish, not just very '80s but very '70s, the procedure is: Smear some melted brie on a slice of bread, then squeeze a few cloves of garlic -- a mild, nearly sweet puree after roasting -- on top of the cheese. Perhaps suffering lapses in taste or memory, we all thought the restaurant's current brie brand inferior -- probably some Wisconsin farm-kid, too young and simple to pair with the sly garlic. The house bread, though, was a wonderful walnut-studded country-Italian light wheat.
The grilled black Mission figs with prosciutto ($8.50) were a Coney Island of the mouth, four plump fruits swelling with an evocatively perfumed orange reduction, set on a small pool of reduced balsamic vinegar, alongside a heaplet of fine-quality cured ham. "Ooh, the taste, the textures -- so sexy!" I exclaimed. "Figs have always been associated with female sexuality," said Nick. "Not just the fig leaves of Eden, but the fruit. In Spain, there's an obscene gesture they call 'the figa' -- you make a fist and tuck the thumb through the first two fingers, like this," he continued, proving the point. Pears, although cooked a bit too long, also enjoyed luxury treatments: In one splendid dish, they adorned chestnut fettuccine ($8.50) -- subtly nutty tan noodles, substantial but not chewy -- dressed with Taleggio, cream, and precisely enough white truffle oil to serve as a subtle seductor, rather than an odorous buttinsky. Caramelized pears also paired up classically with Roquefort ($7.95), in a rewarding balsamic-dressed salad with lightly candied walnuts and peppery young arugula.
Among the seafood appetizers we tried, our favorite was mushrooms stuffed with rock shrimp ($7.50), lightly battered little puffs, juicy but not watery, served over a skimpy puddle of lemon-thyme aioli. Roasted black mussels ($5) were tremblingly tender to the last good bivalve, with not a closed shell in the generous batch; we found their slightly spicy roasted red pepper sauce rather one-dimensional. A couple of nonce seafood appetizers -- coarse-chopped, supermarket-quality ahi tuna tartare ($9.50) on a pool of straight-from-the-bottle sesame chile oil, and crab cakes with habanero creme frache ($9.50) -- seemed uninspired versions of '90s fad-foods (16 more months and they'll vanish from every menu!); they were offered reflexively -- according to "what will sell," rather than related to the kitchen's strengths.
Although many dishes recur, the menu changes daily. The evening's four pastas included house-made ravioli filled with Bellwether Farms' sheep's milk ricotta ($12.50) in a brown butter tomato "salsa" studded with small lumps of cambazola cheese. The cambazola was riveting in its richness, and the ewe's ricotta in the pasta filling tasted fresh and sweet, but the pasta pillows were thick and exceedingly al dente. The "salsa" was fashionably made of sauteed cherry tomatoes, which are too watery, thick-skinned, and wimpy-flavored to survive cooking. We also tried the risotto ($10.50), that evening a mild Tuscan rendition with sage, butter, and a bit of cheese. Although technically competent, it was too bland to stand as a separate course, but would have made a charming starch on a main course plate.
The wine list is well-chosen for the food but skimpy on the low end. (If price is paramount, there are cheap glasses of non-vintage "Little City" brand wine, whatever that is.) Not being a great pinot grigio fan, I was surprised by the paucity of other affordable Italian whites like verdicchio. We semisplurged on a luscious Davis Bynum chardonnay ($28) emphasizing fruit rather than oak. TJ enjoyed a favorite Friulian beer, Moretti.
The overfamiliar dessert menu includes gelato, sorbet, creme brulee, and chocolate truffle torte. In our tiramisu ($6), spongecake supplanted the traditional ladyfingers. "Not nearly enough mascarpone!" Mary Ann pronounced of the near-dry confection, to general agreement. A "summer berry Napoleon with Amaretto cream" ($6.50) wasn't layered like a true napoleon, but had various berries and almond-flavored whipped cream surrounding little triangles of puff pastry. "The pastry doesn't taste like butter," I said. "It tastes like frozen supermarket puff paste, made with shortening." "It's not Pepperidge Farm, but I'm sure it's some restaurant-supply puff pastry," said Mary Ann, who majored in baking.
Dull desserts scarcely matter, given the nearby abundance of Italian pastries and the joys of a postprandial North Beach cafe-crawl. What's more bothersome is the tension between the kitchen's strengths and the expiring food-fads on the menu, and between Little City's comfortable chat-and-gobble atmosphere vs. a sound-system volume that makes chat impossible and offers no pool tables, rock 'n' roll sushi-making, or swimming pools as alternative modes of recreation. At its height, Little City was a really special spot, serving great antipasti in a distinctively North Beach hangout; it faded when the antipasti ceased to be great and the atmosphere lost its internal energy. Little City now has fresh paint, clean windows, and a highly competent new chef. All the rest, as the beats might say, is illusion.