Nibbling on his fortune cookie, Nick disclosed his spotted ancestry. "My father's family is Dalmatian, from the city of Split, and I guess they have Split personalities," he said. "Totally mad! They can't tell the difference between the truth and a good story. While my mother's side, from Venice -- they're all about truth and honor; you don't dare question anything they say."
"Say -- have I got a restaurant for you!" I told him. "It's Istrian. You're going to get food like both your grandmothers made -- assuming they were fantastic cooks."
A week later, we reconvened at Albona Ristorante Istriano. Istria is currently part of Croatia, but from Roman times until the end of World War II it was Italian territory, and was specifically Venetian for several hundred years. A thousand years ago the mighty maritime kingdom conquered all of Croatia; Istria, just a quick sail across the Gulf of Venice, served as the entry point. To find it (it's marked on few modern maps), go to the upper-right-hand corner of Italy and slide round the bend north of the Adriatic Sea to the peninsula jutting below Trieste. To find the restaurant, go to the upper-left-hand corner of North Beach until you're on the border of the Wharfland, and slide to a stop just across the street from the Francisco Street Projects. You can't miss it; it's the only Istrian restaurant on the West Coast. And don't worry about the neighbors -- although Albona is unpretentious, it has free valet parking and a security guard to keep watch. (These amenities, we later learned, cost the restaurant owner more than the rent, but have been worth it.) Inside you'll find a room with a comfortable, plain decor and just 12 tables of various sizes, seating maybe 50.
We were welcomed with warmth (and perhaps a touch of relief) by owners Bruno and Rae Viscovi. Inside, we discovered that here as in the rest of North Beach, it was Prom Night. (Wasn't there a horror film by that title?) Bedecked with wrist-orchids or violet bachelor-buttons, pre-prommers were contemplating their plates with expressions indicating they'd rather have pizza. Compared to these purpled pizza-eaters, we looked like people who'd come on purpose.
We were still trying to decide on our appetizers when Bruno Viscovi urged us to order main courses immediately. Since the kitchen was running out of several entrees, he wanted to reserve our choices. "We don't serve atmosphere here," he noted. "If I wanted to make a surface impression, I would sponge-paint the walls. But here you have serious food instead. We are famous for our rabbit and our lamb." We were still toying with the thought of veal scallops with cognac-preserved cherries ($16.75). "The veal -- it's like scaloppine a la Marsala, but with cherries, too," Bruno said. "If it's your first time here, have the lamb instead." So we did.
"The story my family tells about my grandfather ...," Nick began, but we were distracted when the waiter brought warm butter and bread. It was fresh, true Italian bread, baked in-house or at worst in the neighborhood, with a firm, crisp crust and a light-textured interior. Since the kitchen was backed up, Bruno brought us a complimentary serving of chifeletti, pan-fried potato gnocchi (dumplings) in a tasty sauce based on chopped sirloin with a touch of cumin. Cumin may seem surprising in a North Italian context, until you recall Venice's crucial role in the medieval spice trade -- remember Marco Polo? Middle Eastern and Indian flavorings (cumin, cinnamon, saffron, raisins, almonds, etc.) settled permanently into the cuisine. "Ooh, little perfect puffy pillows!" said Mary Ann of the gnocchi. "Wow, fetal knishes!" I said. "Good stuff, Maynard," TJ said. Meanwhile, we sipped Albona's fresh-flavored house chardonnay ($19), made for the restaurant by a small (obscure) Napa winery.
Nick finally got to tell his story, or at least the start of it. "My grandfather was a big, strong man, 6 foot 2, who worked as a plasterer in rich people's houses," he said. "But he drank way too much wine and he was always broke. He always went to a certain bar, and the bartender had a trained gorilla living in a cage on the roof." But the arrival of the appetizers interrupted him. In addition to more chifeletti ($5), we had calamari ripieni ($5.75), tubes of small squid with a great, tender-firm filling flavored with garlic and parsley. Cioppino piccolo ($5.75) had tender prawns, clams, and big green-lipped mussels in a light-textured marinara sauce. Ortolana ($5.75) was a salad of broiled marinated eggplant and zucchini. The eggplant was on the mushy side but the zucchini was crisp and fine, rival to the legendary marinated zucchini at Tomasso's, with excellent olive oil. "The monster is extra hungry, send in the extra virgin!" I said. After a few more bites Nick waxed philosophical. "This oil is slightly bitter," he reflected, "like the taste of life itself. I figure if we completely spiritualize at death, all that will be left is a faintly bitter aftertaste, like this oil."
For an intermediate course we shared risi e bisi ($13.75), a risotto with peas and pancetta. Each grain was distinct in the firm-tender short-grain rice, and the peas and pancetta (bacon that's salt-cured, not smoked) remained sweet and toothsome. Mary Ann and I, impressed, discussed the horrors of risotto: a half-hour of nonstop hover-and-stir with no time to breathe, which is why we'd both rather leave it to restaurant chefs.
"And every Saturday the bartender would bring down the gorilla and offer a whole night of free wine to anyone who would fight the gorilla," Nick was saying. We were on our second bottle; to go with the meats, we'd switched to Albona's house merlot, but we all found it rather crude and disappointing after the good white. "So my grandfather, who never had any money, would go in there, and a gorilla is much stronger than a man, of course, so it would beat him to a pulp. But the next week, he'd go back and do it again -- every Saturday he'd get the shit beat out of him by this ape, all for a bottle of wine!"
Mary Ann's braciole di maiale ($14.75) were pork loin cutlets playing a backup role to their vibrant, intense stuffing of top-grade sauerkraut, apples, prunes, and prosciutto. Sauerkraut, too, seems unusual in an Italian restaurant, but Vienna replaced Venice as the regional power when the latter's dominion declined, so Austro-Hungarian elements entered Istria's culinary mix. Nick had coniglio in agrodolce ($16.50), the restaurant's signature braised rabbit in a complex, perfectly balanced sweet-sour sauce lightly touched with the piney flavor of juniper berries. Since rabbit (at least locally) is all white meat, some pieces were inevitably a bit dry, but most were perfect. I ordered strudel alla Dalmata ($12.75), an amazing variant of cannelloni. It had a gentle, creamy tomato sauce on top of a delicate house-made pasta sheet, lightly dusted with delicious crumbs from the house bread and rolled around an ample, luscious filling of remarkable prosciutto and cheese. The latter was a mystery, more delicate and creamy than the semiskim mozzarella of local pizzerias. The prosciutto was mysterious, too, pink, juicy, and nearly sweet, like the prosciutto I used to buy in New York -- and unlike the dried-out, near-purple slices available on this coast. So far so great, but TJ was facing up to the agnello ai ferri ($16.75), thin-sliced marinated broiled loin. Although the meat was properly pink, it tasted very "lamb-y" and the marinade seemed rather sour; the only one of us who enjoyed it wholeheartedly was Nick, who grew up with those faintly bitter Croatian aftertastes.
"I asked my father, is this story about my grandfather true?" Nick continued. "I mean -- who keeps a pet gorilla on the roof? Is this legal? And could anyone survive getting beat up by a gorilla once a week?" We finished with a shared order of dessert strudel, which proved to be a single surrounding sheet of pastry (not the manifold layers of the Viennese equivalent) filled with a dull, weighty mass of apples and raisins. However, the espresso (made with beans from Graffeo, North Beach's great roastery) was first-rate.
"And my father would say, 'Do you want the truth -- or the real story?' See, they don't know the difference! Croatians are mad!" Nick insisted. "And yet, my father is a licensed private detective, I'm in claims and I have a PI license, I have cousins who are detectives -- it's become a family tradition. So what do we do? We search for truth, all day, every day, listening to the tone of people's voices. We're all hypersensitive to lies."
The room had emptied and Bruno stopped by to chat with us, having overheard and appreciated some of our ruminations on risotto and relatives. He confessed upon questioning that the cheese in the pasta was Finnish lappi (but keep it mum; patrons expect an Italian cheese). After a while we asked him to call us a taxi. "There are 750,000 people in San Francisco and just over 900 taxis," he said. "I can call one, but you'll get one sooner if you go out my back door and walk a few blocks up Columbus." "Say, where did you find that pink prosciutto?" I asked. "Follow me through the kitchen," Bruno said. "Here's the back door."