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The First-and-a-Halfth Floor 

Caffe Macaroni

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
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I knew our evening at Caffe Macaroni would go strangely when, after my friend Chloe and I took our seats in a tiny upstairs dining room where the ceiling looms just under 6 feet low, Chloe knifed to the end of an extensive wine list and selected the moscato passito di Pantelleria. This wasn't the first odd occurrence: For example, as I arrived in North Beach, I saw three available parking spaces on Broadway and only had to break two laws to obtain one. Then, I spent five minutes outside the wrong Macaroni (Macaroni "Sciue Sciue") before I remembered there was another one ("Cucina del Mercato"). And then, after I walked to the right Macaroni and found none of the people I was looking for, I was sitting out front wondering where everyone was when I got a call on the Macaroniphone inside from my friend Michelle: Had I somehow forgotten to pick her up? she asked.

Perhaps this explained her absence.

But to return to the moscato: As Chloe, who arrived a minute later, was well aware, this is a sweet wine made from partially dried grapes grown on a small island near Sicily (but closer to Tunisia) -- smooth, luscious, gorgeously sugary -- like a crisp, chilled tawny port. The moscato is also fairly expensive ($29 per half bottle) and usually served with dessert, but Chloe insisted, so we indulged. In fact, by the time Michelle and her friend Ruth had driven to North Beach, found parking, gone to the wrong Macaroni, then joined us at the right one, Chloe and I had polished off half the bottle, and I had declared the moscato a wonderful end to a wonderful meal that, of course, hadn't even begun.

Somehow, things like this always happen to me at small, Italian restaurants in North Beach (once, while I was eating at Viva, at least a dozen firefighters showed up in a hail of sirens, stormed the building next door, then strolled back out -- false alarm -- and spent the next 20 minutes having their pictures taken with tourists), but never quite as poignantly as that night at Macaroni. Perhaps architecture played a part: At Macaroni, a tiny downstairs, not much larger than your average basketball shoe, ends at a small staircase that leads to what is essentially a glorified attic -- low, low ceilings, faux leaves curled around genuine pipes, an eight-seat banquet table at which every seat faces out the window, like a bar.

Only a genius or a madperson could have dreamed customers would duck their heads night after night to eat here, and yet they have for more than a decade. Good food, generous portions, and some of the liveliest service in town help explain the popularity, although, in my opinion, the real lure stems from the undeniable giddiness that infects all who enter such a peculiar little alcove. Perhaps this is the place where magic still exists and creatures reveal themselves for what they are, or, barring that, the place where people realize, as Chloe did, that one can drink a thick, honey-tasting dessert wine as an aperitif.

A warning: By drinking sweet moscato before dinner, you may, as I did, ruin your appetite. Not that this stopped me from ordering more food than I've ever ordered at any restaurant, ever, for a party of four, plus a second wine, the Nicolis amarone classico ($38), which tasted of ... moscato passito di Pantelleria on the first sip, but soon resembled the smooth, dry, bitter-cool amarones my father used to ply me with in my youth.

Then my appetite returned, and dinner began with a flourish: "This is antipasti [$11]," proclaimed our waiter as he set it before us, as if there had never been, nor would ever be, another. He wasn't kidding. Though some of the details were lost in the ensuing free-for-all, we saw chick peas, kidney beans, a penne casserole, a potato casserole, red cabbage, olives, carrots, broccoli rabe, and a meltingly spectacular panzanella (bread soaked in tomato, olive oil, onions, and vinegar). Oddly, we only received one of a few items (a clam, a mussel, a slice of mozzarella-topped tomato), so when Michelle ate something "yummy" and tried to identify it, we couldn't help her -- she'd just eaten the only one.

Often, Italian restaurants have large menus and small wine lists. Macaroni, of course, has the opposite (one page of food, supplemented by daily specials; three pages of mostly Italian wines). Not all dishes are perfect -- for example, the grilled eggplant with Gorgonzola ($5.50) was so vinegary putting it near one's mouth felt like inhaling mustard gas. But then, sometimes they are, like the polenta ai porcini ($5.50) -- luxurious, creamy polenta topped with a clear, rich mushroom broth, one of the most comforting comfort foods we'd ever come across.

Quite thoughtfully, the kitchen split our first two pastas into four portions, so we each got a plate bearing a quarter-order (still large) of fettuccine and shrimp in a creamy thyme-mascarpone sauce ($9.25), and gnocchi with Gorgonzola ($8.50). The fettuccine was good, but the gnocchi had one problem -- too much flour -- and thus took on the consistency of thick, gummy, coagulated glue by the third dumpling; none of us could finish even half of a quarter-portion.

But then came the pasta of the day, linguine positano ($16.50): nearly a dozen mussels (half green-lipped, half not), a gallery of grinning clams, and a single jumbo prawn perched atop a mountain of black linguine with white wine sauce. This was a masterpiece. The mussels were tender, succulent, and perfectly cooked, the linguine (dyed with squid ink) perfectly textured and bearing a faint, pleasant (in fact perfect) hint of anise. Well, a bracing pasta like that called for an equally bracing wine -- a burly, red-blooded, Antinori Chianti classico riserva ($29) -- and, to go with it, four secondi.

Here, the two seafood specials (both $15.50) -- Ruth's grilled mahi-mahi with lemon and mixed greens and Chloe's monkfish in a cilantro-garlic tomato sauce -- were decent, but paled next to our other selections, since neither sauce really captured the soul of the fish. From the regular menu, Michelle's gamberoni alla griglia ($13.95, and if you say "gamberoni alla griglia" five times in a booming voice, your hands will rise, palms up, toward the ceiling -- try it) seemed a more appropriate pairing -- a half-dozen or so jumbo prawns, the size of small lobsters, seasoned with little more than smoke from the open grill.

In retrospect, though, perhaps mahi-mahi and monkfish weren't the wisest choices, which is not to say Macaroni doesn't know how to do fish, but that another option -- oxtail and pork sausage braised in tomato sauce -- is one of the best entrees you'll get anywhere in San Francisco for $11.25. Both Chloe and Ruth claimed to be full, yet helped themselves repeatedly to the tender, fatty oxtail and chunks of sausage in a tangy-rich tomato sauce, spread over what seemed like an acre of polenta. This is the kind of dish with which empires are built. Or, as our waiter might have said, "This is oxtail" -- a statement that needs no further explanation.

Our dolci assortiti made us wonder: Either our waiter had figured out we were doing a restaurant review and wanted to screw with us, or Macaroni has the most assorted desserts you'll find anywhere for $3.50: tiramisu, cheesecake, fruit salad, nut-shaped cookies with a sweet glaze, plus four chocolate mousses, four shots of limoncella, and, for Michelle, a traditional, three-tiered espresso. Subsequent research revealed this is the regular dessert plate, and while nothing was spectacular, everything was good, and rendered all the more sweet by the blessedly sippable moscato that Chloe, in her infinite wisdom, had the foresight to order an hour earlier.

The arrival of the check offered one last treat: Desserts had been comped with no ceremony or explanation -- a nice touch, but not entirely surprising, since generosity is very much a part of the Macaroni experience, and what's more, I'd racked up one of those bills that makes you go, "Wow, I'll be in deep shit when my editor sees this." (Editor's note: He is.) But then, I figured, 24 hours in the small wood box SF Weekly freelancers have to sit in when they're bad wasn't the worst fate could offer: After all, I could have been the fellow at the next table who, in the middle of a hot date, ordered a gigantic, heaping bowl -- no, make that a small tub -- of Macaroni's gnocchi.

Caffe Macaroni
59 Columbus (at Jackson), 956-9737. Open Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations not accepted. Credit cards not accepted. Parking: difficult. Muni: 15, 41. Noise level: moderate to loud.

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Greg Hugunin

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