Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make hungry. We found out when we crossed the street that Da Flora was closed for a private party -- indeed, one arranged by Thiebaud for the artist. No fools they, with a charming restaurant so close by.
We were thrown back on our own devices. It was a Tuesday night, and Tuesday seems to be the new Monday. My favorite place in the touristic Italianate hell of Columbus, where the restaurant barkers seem even more determined than those standing in front of the strip clubs, is the tiny, eccentric L'Osteria del Forno, which gleams like a genuine pearl somehow strung on a rope of plastic Mardi Gras beads: closed Tuesday. I thought of Café Jacqueline, the soufflé haven tucked away on Grant: closed Tuesday. (And Monday, too.) But trudging past it ignited memories of a fervent recommendation of another restaurant, farther up the street. As we headed there, hungry and beginning to get cranky, we passed Ristorante Ideale, and Robert, who'd lived in Rome for several years, mentioned how genuine he'd found it. (I was mildly put off because it had its own barker, though one who was considerably less relentless than those a block away.)
When the fervently recommended place proved totally booked, we turned around wordlessly and returned to Ideale. Which proved ideal for our purposes: We were immediately led to a nice table in the second of two pleasant if not particularly memorable dining rooms. We shared four starters, three of which were very tasty indeed: insalata d'aranci e finocchi, a sparkling salad of fresh shaved fennel with orange segments, walnuts, capers, and crumbled gorgonzola in a brisk champagne vinaigrette; zucchini tartifate, an unusual salad of julienned zucchini, musky with truffle oil and Parmigiano, with a couple of crostini smeared with a tapenadelike truffle pâté; and the best of the bunch, grilled calamari, almost but not quite charred, good and smoky. The least interesting was the caprese. Robert had said we shouldn't get it -- it wasn't tomato season -- and yet somehow it was ordered. I would have gone for the prosciutto and pears with mascarpone or the crostini topped with melted mozzarella and anchovies. But the caprese came, and the mozzarella was a little too firm, as were the tomatoes. But what did it matter, when the other dishes were so satisfying? As was the thin white wine, Falanghina, an unusual varietal rarely seen on American wine lists, and the house-baked bread, perfect for sopping up assorted oils and juices.
Ideale makes its own pastas, too, and three of us felt like pasta that night. The ricotta gnocchi were superb, elastic and light, in not too much of a dark, beefy ragu (you can also have them with tomato sauce and basil) -- probably my favorite dish on the table. The bucatini (tubular spaghetti) all'amatriciana was classic, with homemade pancetta flavoring its fresh tomato sauce. The only surprising thing about the plate of salsiccia con broccoletti (sausage with garlicky broccoli rabe and polenta) was the generous serving of rough, porky sausage, much bigger than you'd get in a Roman trattoria, but equally well flavored. Again, only one dish disappointed, and it was in the execution, not the ingredients: I wanted spaghetti carbonara that night, and a little too long in the pan had broken the rich cheese-and-egg sauce, scrambling the eggs instead of emulsifying them.
Two courses each, and we were replete, not even tempted by the tiramisu voted best in S.F. by this publication a few years ago. (Only a little bowl of fresh fruit salad splashed with maraschino liqueur, available in every trattoria in Italy but seemingly unknown here, would have made my pleasure complete.) I was not surprised to read that chef Maurizio Bruschi comes from four generations of Roman chefs; his grandmother and teacher, La Nonna Serafina, would have been proud of him that night.
My next Viaggio en Italia was again prompted by proximity. I'd recently discovered the amazing, free film noir screenings downtown sponsored by the Danger & Despair Knitting Circle on Thursday nights (www.noirfilm.com). When I invited one of the programmers, Marc Dolezal, aka Dark Marc, to dinner before seeing two obscure Poverty Row noirs set in San Francisco, The Treasure of Monte Cristo and No Escape, he suggested Umbria, not only because it was steps away from where the screening would be held, but also because he likes the place.
It was a warm night, and the paver tile floors, wooden tables, and rush-seated chairs felt casual and appropriate. I was early, so I ordered an antipasto misto to start, plus a glass of Prosecco. The plate of decent prosciutto, mozzarella, olives, artichoke hearts, and slightly under-roasted garlic cloves looked like something a '50s housewife would have put out for a cocktail party: It might have been all right for the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but it felt and tasted a little half-hearted and pro forma to me.
When Marc arrived, he ordered a rum and coke -- Cuba Libre! So maybe we were in the '50s. We decided to split a pasta and then go on to the main courses, real primi piatti/secondi, Italian style. The rolatini al fattore (a dish heretofore unknown to me) was rich and deadly (deadly, at least, if you thought you were going on to another course): a generous portion, even when split, of fat, ridged tubes drenched in what the kitchen laughingly calls a light cream sauce, full of ground prosciutto, fresh mushrooms, red onion, and tomatoes. Lots of sauce. Very Italian-American (at its best), and compulsively edible. And perhaps more Umbrian than the pasta called "spaghetti alla Umbria," featuring large grilled tiger prawns -- Umbria is landlocked.
We went on to maiale alla marsala for me, pork tenderloins sautéed with mushrooms in the Marsala sauce that usually blankets veal scalloppini, and saltimbocca di pollo for Marc, a classic Roman dish when made with veal, prosciutto, and sage, but here made with chicken, Italian-Americaned up with mozzarella and a Marsala sauce much like the faintly gluey, salty one drenching my pork. I was able to relax and enjoy the pasta, but these dishes seemed kind of clueless in San Francisco in 2004. It's tasty, familiar Italian fare, but no more Umbrian than I am. I was much more interested in what Marc had to say about the Knitting Circle, a delightful bunch of obsessives who trade noir tapes and DVDs (and sell some, too, in order to support the free screenings; they'll be starting a series of '30s pre-Code movies in mid-July). We were joined for a quick drink by Paul Meienberg, the witty and occasionally caustic co-programmer of the series, a tireless researcher and film collector and the source of the movies we're going to see tonight.
At the screening I wasn't surprised to see Eddie Muller, local author and programmer of all things noir, in the capacity crowd. I heard a knowing laugh during the misnamed Treasure of Monte Cristo, when hot merchant marine Glenn Langan hits the Embarcadero and responds to a pal's question -- "What'll it be? Girls? Gay times?" -- with an insouciant "Maybe a little of both." I imagined Glenn and femme fatale Adele Jergens supping on veal scallopini marsala when they go to Julius' Castle. As the narrator intones over the opening shots of No Escape, "San Francisco ... I have walked its streets and seen many strange things, heard many strange stories." None stranger than that told in this odd little picture, aka City on a Hunt, whose dreamy montage of picturesque sights was punctuated by You'll be glad you live in this lovely city -- unless you commit murder! (Then we watched as bridges, busses, trains, planes, and the "roads to the south" swiftly slammed shut, in a series of shots that so pleased the filmmakers that they repeated them verbatim a couple of reels later.)
I would happily return to Ristorante Ideale, but found Umbria much less compelling. When I mentioned this to Robert, he told me that after a meal at Umbria he fell into conversation with the owner and told him he'd lived in Rome. "You should have told me," the man said. "I'd cook for you like we do in Italy. They don't like it that way here."