You can't help but feel sorry for the tourists who wander around North Beach, hungry and confused. Even with all the information available in guidebooks, on Web sites, and in local magazines and newspapers — or perhaps because of that excess of information — they still manage to stumble into some rather, shall we say, inadequate eateries. A number of those eateries are equipped with sidewalk touts. I prefer kindly folks who lead the unwary visitor to better places just a few blocks away, as a neighborhood crone once did for a group of us in Barcelona. (And no, she didn't get a kickback from the owners.)
When I'm asked where to dine in North Beach, I mention Giordano Bros. for a quick sandwich, Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe for lunch, L'Osteria del Forno for lunch and dinner, and one of my favorite restaurants in all of San Francisco, Da Flora, for a marvelous Italian dinner on Columbus. Off Columbus and not Italian are the Asian-fusion The House on Grant, the Brazilian/Italian Mangarosa on Stockton, the casual North Beach Lobster Shack on Green, and the Argentine steakhouse El Raigon on Union. For a fantastic modern meal where money is no object, there's Daniel Patterson's Coi on Broadway. But I'm as eager to find a new place in North Beach to try as anyone — even if it's been around for a while.
When friends said they'd had a good meal at Panta Rei, an Italian place that took over the longtime triangular space of the old (and old-fashioned) U.S. restaurant at the confluence of Columbus, Green, and Stockton several years ago, we booked an early dinner. We were happy to hear our friends had especially liked the osso buco.
The place was not at all full, but we were offered the worst table in the house: a four-top right by the open door, subject to a wicked draft on a cool night. But as soon as we declined that, we were offered our choice, and picked a table right by the window on Columbus, near the apex of the eccentrically shaped room. We loved most of the '60s La Dolce Vita decor — the all-over-mosaic-tiled bar, the white multipendant lamp in front of the open kitchen, the chrome starburst sconces — but the faces and silhouettes painted on the walls and the slightly grungy metal-topped tables: not so much. "I know places just like this in Rome," I said, "but they've looked like this ever since the '60s." The big-screen TV over the bar was blessedly dark, but apparently it gets quite a workout during Italian soccer season.
It was clear where the kitchen's priorities were from the proportions allotted to the dishes on the menu: 14 antipasti, four pizzas and one calzone, eight meat and fish entrées — and 21 homemade pastas. They were divided between two pages of equal length, one headed Daily Specials, but it seemed from the fact that the pages were laminated that they'd been the Daily Specials for quite some time. That's odd when you consider that Panta Rei translates, loosely, from the Greek as "everything is changing" — a key tenet of the philosophy of Heraclitus, who never sprang to mind while we were ensconced within the restaurant itself.
Most of our starters were rather indifferent. The pale-beige calamari fritti ($8.95), mostly rings with a couple of tentacles and hunks of zucchini, had been fried at too low a temperature and in consequence were not really crisp; the spicy tomato sauce served alongside was pleasantly hot, but too thin. The arancio and finocchio salad ($5.95) was almost insulting: warmish limp sprigs of greens in not enough dressing, with not enough orange or fennel or olives. When told the zuppa del giorno was duck with vegetables, which didn't suit her mood, one of our party was going to skip a first course until a second query elicited the fact (which seemed to have slipped our server's mind) that minestrone ($6.50) was also available. A huge bowl appeared ("a meal in itself," its orderer said) filled with a thin broth brimming with carrots, celery, onions, and zucchini. It was a good vegetable soup, sans pasta that tasted as if it had come from an Italian nonna's kitchen, improved by a few flurries of standard-issue pre-grated Parmesan.
The one surprisingly excellent starter was the polenta nera ($9.50), a silky-textured polenta, tinted black with squid ink, which lent a distant, pleasantly saline tang to the cornmeal. It was covered with a mascarpone sauce topped with a number of superfluous firm pink shrimp. Again, this was a huge portion.
Three of us chose pasta, available only in whole portions priced from $12.95 to $19.95, and thereby not encouraging the traditional Italian ordering of antipasti, pasta, and secondi, especially when the meat and fish (and one risotto) are priced between $17.95 for a roasted half chicken and $23.95 for saffron risotto with lobster and shrimp. Most everybody within eyesight was ordering only one dish — the massive sausage and mozzarella calzone ($10.95).
The gnocchi alla Bolognese ($15.95) had a pleasant elastic texture but not much flavor, drenched in a slightly gritty veal Bolognese sauce with little distinction. The tagliolini con radicchio ($16.95) sounded exciting, with its bitter leaves, salty prosciutto, and slivered artichokes in a slightly gluey red-wine sauce, but although we could tell the pasta itself was excellent, the combination didn't wow us. Much better was the justly praised osso buco ($19.95) mounded atop homemade fettuccine in a sticky, winey, creamy porcini sauce.
I'd been tempted by the tre paste ($12.95), three kinds of pasta served on a divided plate: ravioli in cream sauce, penne in pink sauce, and gnocchi in red sauce, but I chose the abbachio arrosto (roasted lamb shank with potatoes and vegetables, $19.95) instead of grilled salmon topped with asparagus, filet mignon with shiitake mushroom sauce, or pounded veal chop with roasted potatoes. The lamb was perfectly fine, still-moist meat covered with a dark pan sauce, crisscrossed with sprigs of fresh rosemary and sided with good roasted potatoes (though no other vegetables, as advertised).
We drank a reasonably priced Orvieto ($21) from an adequate list that warned the vintages were subject to change. Luckily the other warning we read — Sorry, No Credit Card — proved to be no longer in force.
The two desserts we tried — overgelatined panna cotta flavored with Nutella ($6.50) and little profiteroles squiggled with chocolate sauce ($6.50) — didn't encourage us to linger. I didn't feel that the punters now filling every table at Panta Rei were to be pitied, exactly, but I had no plans to add it to my shortlist of the best places to eat in North Beach.