Up to now, most San Franciscans have been blind to the joys of Venetian cookery. Here, amid our Roman pizzas, Ligurian pestos, and Sicilian pastas, our Tuscan roasts and Calabrese "family-style" feasts, Venetian fare was absent until Tavolino's recent opening in North Beach. So an excursion to the Beach was in order, and we soon found ourselves enjoying a balmy evening most Italianately -- sitting with friends at a sidewalk table warmed by heat lamps, ravaging a saucerful of fried green olives ($3.25) while we tried to compose our order from Tavolino's menu of cicchetti (pronounced chick-KET-tee), the tapaslike snacks served at Venetian wine bars. The olives were distracting us. Lightly battered and flash-fried, they were stuffed with anchovies.
And choosing a wine also proved delightfully difficult, given the 100-odd bottlings of Italian grapes (grown there or here), with a wealth of sub-$25 offerings -- including our eventual Bonny Doon malvasia blanca ($5.50/$22), its sassy, grassy flavor a pleasing shock after we'd inhaled its woozy honeysuckle nose.
Tavolino is a project of North Beach restaurant team Rick Hackett and Hanna Suleiman (of Enrico's) and chef David Stevenson (late of PlumpJack Cafe, Ma Tante Sumie, and Le Trou), looking to create an eatery at which friends could share nibbles of unusual dishes.
Throughout the Renaissance, Venice was the most accessible (hence, richest) European terminus for merchant ships from the East; today, its food still boasts more cinnamon than garlic, more ginger than basil. The bold, surprising flavors are vastly different from those we expect from generic red "Italian" food.
Our server brought our order in coherent groups of the little dishes, moving from lighter tastes to heavier ones as the meal progressed, stacking trios of plates on a wrought-iron stand and an additional plate or two on the crowded table. We began with lightly grilled fresh nectarines on a bed of young arugula leaves, pleasingly surrounded with slices of mild prosciutto and soft, tangy taleggio cheese ($9.50). A sapid salad of fresh corn and sweet toybox tomatoes ($6) featured the kind of corn you buy at country highway stands -- sweet, crisp, and fresh -- while the savory dressing was thickened and reddened with (I'd guess) powdered sweet chiles.
But sea-bass "saor" ($6.50) was mildly disappointing, a plump hunk of simple fried fish over a micron-thin trace of sauce. I'd expected a more ample sample of traditional saor -- a descendant of an ancient, sweet-sour spice-laden sauce that the Roman Empire devised to preserve fish, and which spice-rich Venice never abandoned.
The superstar of our first array of dishes was baccala mantecato with grissini ($5.50), salt cod with breadsticks. The warm fish puree was beautifully de-salted but still maintained its distinctive flavor, smoothly macerated with a lucid, balanced dressing of olive oil and citrus. The breadsticks, however, were too harsh for the fish, which was better scooped up with a bit of the table-bread.
Moving on to warm dishes, the next grouping started with a clever sturgeon saltimbocca ($7.50), slightly overcooked fillets of the meaty white fish, slit in the center to cache prosciutto and a slick of melted cheese. Steamed black mussels ($8.50) were tiny and amazingly tender, a contrast to their larger, tougher cousins usually available at local markets. Of three preparations, we'd chosen the Venetian version with white wine and rosemary.
Polenta, rather than pasta, is Venice's favorite starch. Only Americans try to flavor polenta with butter and cheese and so forth -- in Italy it's just a base for sauces, plain old cornmeal mush. In this case, the mush engulfed a modicum of Amerone-braised duck, stewed to fatless, fall-apart shreds in a light-textured red wine sauce ($6.75). The porridge also accompanied juicy chunks of house-made, Sicilian-style sweet fennel sausage ($6.50), in an exemplary version very similar to the sweet Sicilian sausages from Little City Meats, an Italian butcher shop a block from the restaurant. The mixture was topped with caramelized sweet onions, lending a sweet-sharp contrast to the rich meat and bland porridge.
Risotto is another typically Venetian starch, and Tavolino's intriguing black risotto, colored with squid ink, held a few small pieces of tender, bright-tasting grilled calamari ($8.25). The moist, firm rice had a subtle, highly attractive flavor from the marriage of its creamy starch with the cooked-down squiddy juices. The last of our dishes was seafood bolognese ($8.75), combining Venice's maritime flavors with the inland traditions of Emilia-Romagna: Al dente penne were served in a hearty sauce of spinach, some seafood bits, and cooked-fresh red and yellow tomatoes with their thin skins still present -- probably a recurrence of the corn salad's intense little toybox tomatoes. I found the pasta too heavy for its accompaniments, but my tablemates devoured it enthusiastically.
As we finished our cicchetti, a jazz duo (alto sax and guitar) started their gig inside the restaurant, drawing our glance through the large windows to the interior's old-timey mahogany bar and wall-paneling, and to the people peering out at us as we peered in at them. Even before the live combo came on, the inside sound level was rather exuberant, mainly arising from animated dinner conversations rather than the sound system (which had been discreetly playing Billie Holiday tracks, to my great pleasure).
Clean and simple desserts ($5.50 each) by Chez Panisse alumna Mary Jo Thoreson are (for once) worth the calories. A compote that almost qualifies as an "anti-sweet" had peach and plum pieces in a tart red liquid, accompanied by a single yummy date-nut biscotto. Lean, light, and delightful, it was healthy enough to win your mom's approval. Dense, slightly dry almond cake wore a thin layer of sliced-almond frosting and a too-soon-consumed puff of pillowy zabaglione (Italy's ethereal whipped stovetop custard). A baked lemon custard with fennel and a fresh berry garnish held a light citrus flavor -- just enough to combat any eggyness -- and an intriguing resinous undertone from the fennel seeds. A pair of sorbets contrasted tart, refreshing melon against rich, creamy white nectarine, a superb juxtaposition of ice and spice.
In the short time since its opening, Tavolino has already found a special niche for itself. Not only does it offer an underrepresented cuisine, but it doles it out in little tastes at moderate prices, so that it's fun to sample. Better yet, it's a place for friends to relax, chatting away the stresses of the workday over good glasses of wine and these amusing nibbles. You could be snacking in Venice -- but as a Venetian, not a visitor.