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A couple of small neighborhood restaurants transcend their locales and draw crowds from all over the city

Wednesday, Jul 12 1995
When is a neighborhood restaurant more than a neighborhood restaurant? When it's good enough to be a destination, and people incur all the hassles of getting across town for the pleasure of dining there. Aromi and Laghi, Italian restaurants in Polk Gulch and the Richmond, both transcend their neighborhoods, soaring way above the tomato sauce/garlic/pasta joints scattered all over town.

The spirit behind year-old Aromi is Hoss Zare, former chef at Ristorante Ecco and a native of Azerbaijan. Zare's non-European roots are evident in the original twist he gives Italian classics, resulting in Aromi's distinct character.

Zare had a great space to work with. The semienclosed outdoor patio, with its exposed brick wall, colored lanterns, and (thank God) heat lamps is delightful, despite the fact that the vista diners gaze out upon -- Walgreens and a savings and loan -- contains not one iota of charm. Let's face it, charming and Polk Gulch an oxymoron make. The interior is softly lit and roomy; brightly colored contemporary abstract paintings line the walls. A very pleasant bar, separated from the dining room by French glass doors, draws an eclectic Polk Street crowd.

We start with smoked pheasant salad ($7.50) with marinated fresh figs, roasted bell peppers, walnuts, mild Gorgonzola, watercress, and greens in a raspberry vinaigrette. Although it's somewhat busy, each ingredient is of highest quality, and it's fun picking out different tastes for each forkful. The fresh figs send us off the charts.

Spinach penne ($11.25) with wild and domestic mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh herbs in white-wine cream sauce is one of the best pasta dishes I've ever had. If you're a mushroom lover, this dish -- brimming with morel, shiitake, oyster, and button mushrooms -- is for you. Caramelized onion brings a touch of sweetness to the light sauce. I can't rave enough.

Portions, by the way, are generous. We could easily have stopped after the pasta, but, duty-bound, we pressed on. A special lamb sirloin ($17.75) served with garlic mashed potatoes, spinach, crisp snow peas, and carrots is served in a demi glace sauce of port wine, butter, and fresh figs. The lamb is superbly tender. Again, the number of accompaniments could overwhelm, but they're all presented in a straightforward fashion.

Cocciucco ($15.75), a seafood stew with mussels, prawns, scallops, and fresh snapper bathed in fresh tomatoes, fennel, and wine, is a triumph. A daring rouille of mustard seed and fennel works beautifully with the stew's robust flavors. The only quibble we have are the slightly undercooked scallops.

Among the desserts are a giant ice cream sandwich (saucer-size crunchy chocolate cookies filled with not-great vanilla ice cream); a flute filled with fresh berries and champagne zabaglione (my favorite); and a mini chocolate souffle. Service is attentive and gracious throughout the evening. A friend, who regularly brings her toddler to Aromi, says they couldn't be nicer with children. Yet another plus.

Out at 19th and Clement, Gail and Gino Laghi, of San Francisco and Emilia-Romagna, have been captivating diners with first-rate Italian food in their simple, homey trattoria for five years. He's head chef, she makes the bread, pastas, soup, and desserts and runs the front of this intimate 12-table restaurant. As at Aromi, the menu, which changes daily, is highly personalized and reflects the owners' vision, not some corporate notion of crowd-pleasing Italian dishes.

The appetizer of mashed potatoes covered with a blanket of sauteed morels and shiitakes ($6) is so good, we request another after the first bite, knowing our table of four will devour it in minutes. The second one disappears in a flash.

A salad of arugula and Belgian endive with Gorgonzola dressing ($5.75) is light and flavorful, the bitterness of the endive balancing nicely with the tangy Gorgonzola. Marinati della casa ($5.25) -- marinated grilled eggplant and zucchini, artichoke hearts, and baby corn -- and antipasto Ellenico ($5.50) -- tomato, red onion, cucumber, black olives, ricotta, and basil -- are both well-made, if unexciting.

Cornmeal rigatoni with roasted lamb sauce ($11.25) is a dish that has Laghi's distinctive stamp all over it: The coarse texture of the housemade pasta is a perfect vehicle for the sauce, which is enlivened with flecks of mint. The women at the table agree that the mint is a brilliant touch (one that sets off a nostalgic discussion about mint jelly); the men, both of French extraction, are far more conservative.

The waiter tells us pan-seared pork tenderloin with balsamic vinegar sauce ($15.25) is his favorite, and one bite tells us why. The tender meat comes alive with the tart sweetness of the balsamic. Roasted rabbit with mushrooms and pine nuts ($15.75) is succulent, making me regret all the dried-out rabbit I've been served. Risotto al marinario ($15) is brimming with fresh rock shrimp, mussels, and calamari. Quail (two plump, juicy birds) is served with Molinari sausage sauteed with fresh sage ($14.75).

So knowledgeable and accommodating is our waiter, we want to invite him to join us. Obviously, it's important to the Laghis that everyone who works in their family business shares their enthusiasm about the food.

Tiramise has become the creme brelee of desserts: It's everywhere and often undistinguished. Laghi's version ($5), home-baked ladyfingers with creamy mascarpone and bittersweet chocolate chips, dusted with espresso and chocolate, puts all others to shame. Affogato del bosco ($3.75) -- fresh berries, ice cream, and whipped cream -- is light and refreshing.

Laghi's wine list has some carefully chosen Italian reds and whites, a few California wines, and a choice of five dessert wines.

Both Laghi and Aromi are charting independent courses at a time when heavily bankrolled, celebrity, and franchise restaurants seem to be gobbling up the city. Their old-fashioned way of doing things -- from scratch, without focus groups -- never goes out of style.

Aromi, 1507 Polk, S.F., 775-5977. Open Sun-Thurs, 5-10 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5-11 p.m.; Tues-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Laghi, 1801 Clement, S.F., 386-6266. Open Tues-Sun, 5-10 p.m.

About The Author

Barbara Lane


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