When Rose Pistola opened in North Beach almost two years ago, the rave reviews for its Ligurian (northwest Italian) cooking and its high-energy atmosphere swiftly drew capacity crowds. It was another success in owner Reed Hearon's string, after LuLu (serving California-French in SOMA) and Cafe Marimba (recherche Mexican in the Marina). Soon Pistola spawned a little Marina spinoff, Rose's Cafe, and then Hearon turned his attention to a grander new enterprise in North Beach, the Black Cat. But we know what can happen when the cat's away -- and indeed, rumblings of discontent have been rising from some Pistola patrons: The 1998 Zagat guide cited "icy" service, and critical postings have multiplied on local restaurant Web sites. It was time to stop and smell Rose's again.
By chance we arrived very early, so we killed some time over drinks at Gino and Carlo, a plain, tough little North Beach dive on Green Street since 1942. I'd guess not too much has changed there since the end of World War II, other than jukebox updates, an occasional paint job, and the replacement of broken pool cues; you see the same faces year after year. Herb Caen used to drop in there, and so did the real Rose "Pistola" Evangelisti after she retired, when Ed Moose took over the funky premises of her saloon (on Powell at Union) and spiffed them up mightily to create the Washbag. Rose was a feisty little matriarch, exuding warmth and comfort, but ready to flame anyone misbehaving. (She didn't actually wave a pistol -- her late husband did -- but she had a cleaver and a mouth.) A one-woman pep team for her neighborhood, she'd chant: "We're rough! We're tough! We're from North Beach, and that's enough!"
When you walk into Rose Pistola, the restaurant, you encounter a cross-section of San Francisco, L.A., and New Jersey, accents mingling, jeans and windbreakers next to suits and evening gowns (on a weeknight!). The ceiling looks like acoustical tile but is actually wallboard, bouncing the sound back to the dining room as 10 lively chefs at the open kitchen sing, laugh, and shout to each other, volubly happy in their work. Bargoers socialize, dinner patrons yell to hear each other, and starting at 9 p.m., there's live jazz (although it's no more audible than your friend across the table). Even our waiter was deafened by the din -- he was very nice (not icy at all) but twice misheard parts of our order.
The tasty table bread looks like focaccia, but turns out to be a light, yeasty bread topped with caramelized onions and a visible crusting of salt. The daily menu, which follows the seasons, includes about 20 hot and cold running antipasti. We ordered hot grilled sardines, one of the few dishes on the current menu to recall specifically the flavors of Genoa. Mistakenly, the server brought cold cured sardines ($5.50), three pinkie-sized fillets, tough-textured and rather vinegary, with a bit of mint and a few currants. The grilled version ($4.50) was much better, with two whole small fishes, heads and tails intact, carrying a smoky tang and a touch of mild salsa verde. Grilled octopus ($6.50), a modest portion of tender little tentacle pieces with the suckers trimmed off, was quick-seared (probably in the leaping flames of the hearth behind the cooks) and served with tasty slivers of raw fennel. Earlier, as we'd waited for our table, my eyes had been drawn to the chanterelles decorating the polenta of a woman eating at the bar, and I swore that such a dish would soon be mine. Indeed, polenta with wild mushrooms ($5.50) was not only our best appetizer, but the most generous. Along with chanterelles were cepes and oyster mushrooms, all juicy, rich, and buttery. The gooey mush was rich in cheese but would have been even more luscious had we received warmed plates; it started to solidify before three of us could polish it off.
After the plentiful polenta, we were pleased when the waiter warned there'd be a short delay before our final appetizer, grilled persimmons with prosciutto ($4.50) -- the kitchen was having some problem producing it. When it arrived, it consisted of small, thin pieces of persimmon wrapped in thick slices of Italian ham. One piece had juicy fruit, but the other two were blandly underripe, outgunned by very salty meat. This, and the salt crust on the table bread, were the first hints of a salinity that was about to engulf us.
The cioppino ($20.50) deserves its reputation as one of the best in North Beach: Unlike most renditions, there's just enough tomato for an accent, not so much as to swamp the delicate, tender calamari rings, mussels, and hunks of Dungeness crab in the shell. Slices of floating bread -- a borrowing from French bouillabaisse -- deliciously sop up the sauce. But our yellowtail jack ($15.50), a lean warm-water tuna from Southern California (known as hamachi in sushi bars) was a much less successful dish. When you order any of the finfishes on the menu, you can choose among three cooking methods (roasting, braising, or grilling) and five sets of garnishes. We went for roasted fish accompanied by fennel and tapenade. The soft-cooked fennel was meltingly delicious and the tapenade (black olive puree) made an interesting glaze on the fish -- but the tuna was overcooked, and had been salted so heavily as to have drawn out all its moisture. The portion was small but we couldn't finish it.
Worse yet -- inedible, in fact -- was wood-roasted quail with root vegetables ($18.50). The vegetable assortment was fine: We enjoyed guessing the identities of the various roots, masked by their charred exteriors. The bird, however, was not only slightly overcooked (which it forgave, as quail will), but was so violently salty we could manage only a couple of bites each. Our mouths burned, our lips chapped, and the salt so impregnated our tongues that even the cioppino became impossible to eat.
Happily, the beverage list is nearly up to the salt-lick challenge. Wines are split between California and Italy; although glasses can be a bit steep (from $5 to $8.50), the bottles are moderate ($33 tops for all but a magnum of French champagne). Our waiter wisely recommended the 1996 Cinsault ($23), a vivacious light red from Acorn Winery in the Russian River Valley. Cocktails, aperitifs (including the neighborhood favorite, Amer Picon), a good choice of beers, sodas, and fresh fruit juices are alternatives.
Desserts were pretty good. The day's special caramel and chocolate truffle souffle ($8) was pleasing and not oversweet, notwithstanding a slightly grainy texture. Flaming vanilla fried cream ($7.50) was a dense custard, lightly breaded and fried. A server doused it in Bacardi Anejo rum and set it afire at the table -- ta-da! The flame brought out the essence of the accompanying brandied cherries. Although I found it all a bit much, my friends were delighted to demolish my share.
If we allow that the oversalted items could have been anomalies (perhaps two separate cooks stubbed their toes on the salt shaker that evening), would the restaurant deserve raves? One appetizer was excellent, but the neighborhood offers more interesting, better-wrought antipasti. One entree was top-notch, but the others were hardly so unique or thrilling as to survive any imperfection in execution, and this busy kitchen is evidently not a careful kitchen. Prices are not low, portions are not generous.
Last September, Rose Evangelisti passed away at age 90. I've got her meatball recipe. Sir, I knew Rose Pistola -- and Rose Pistola is no Rose Pistola.