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Cheery Confusion 

Il Porcellino

Wednesday, Oct 25 2000
As happens to all of us from time to time, my friend Barrie was feeling a tad ... blue. There were reasons for this, of course, although she probably wouldn't appreciate my detailing them here. So I'll make something up. What happened was, Barrie's cat got sick on the custom suede seats of the brand-new stretch Hummer limousine she bought with the proceeds from her lucrative investment in the Congolese Telephone Co. Then, Congolese Telephone took one on the chin (a "political" situation), gutting the ad budget for her new limo business. What's more, she's convinced the $1 she loaned her stepbrother -- former Dallas Cowboys linebacker-turned-cokehead/ convict-turned-clean-and-sober-fellow Mr. Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson -- is the same dollar he spent earlier this year on a winning $28 million lottery ticket. And has Hollywood been returning her calls? Ha. I think you all know the answer.

Anyway, I'd be upset too if that happened to me, and since I consider Barrie a dear friend, I took it upon myself to cheer her up. Back in the day, we would have donned my velvet horse suit and blown off some steam dry-humping unsuspecting tourists at Fisherman's Wharf ("Oh, let's get a picture with the pretty horsy!"), but since we're still on probation for that I went with the old backup plan: a 22.3-ounce Pilsner Urquell for her to sip while I drove to Montclair, where we rubbed the snout of the lucky ceramic pig at La Salle Avenue's Il Porcellino.

Like many, many, many, many, many Italian restaurants the world over, Il Porcellino ("the little pig," named after a lucky bronze statue of a wild boar in Florence) is a joyous, welcoming place. An open, airy dining room -- exposed brick, bright yellow walls, straw basket Chianti bottles -- speaks of warmth, bounty, and togetherness, while languid, billowing opera music caresses the careworn diner like a breeze. The black hand of melancholy will find no place to grasp here -- instead, the heart falls open, as Barrie's did when she rubbed the aforementioned ceramic pig and made a wish. She didn't tell me what the wish was, although it should be noted that Congolese Telephone was staging a comeback the last time I checked -- a lucky pig indeed.

This was a balmy night, so we dined alfresco at one of two streetside tables, where the good citizens of Montclair strolled past under rustling green trees dappled with light. Our waiter, a charming young hooligan (Italian, of course), took a shine to us immediately, plying us with smiles, friendly banter, and assurances that the food here was as good as anything we could get back in Italy.

Well, I figured, we'd see about that. I began to believe him as I noted the nice (free) touches that preceded our meal: a pitcher of sparkling water and a plate of hearty white bread accompanied by Il Porcellino's version of panzanella, a mild, tangy dip made from bread crumbs, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and fresh herbs. Such generosity called for a drink -- a crisp, dry, spanking-fresh bottle of Valle Isarco pinot grigio '99 -- and, since Italian meals are best served hearty, a nine-course banquet that kept us, and our waiter, busy for the next hour and then some.

Il Porcellino offers an extensive selection of classic Italian dishes, from pasta porcellino (penne with onions, garlic, artichoke hearts, olives, crushed tomato, chili oil, and shaved pecorino) on the low end to filet mignon with Gorgonzola on the high. Daily specials (such as risotto "Machiavelli" with roast chicken, spinach, mushrooms, and saffron) accommodate the adventurous, while lighter, younger eaters can get their fill with a children's half-order of pasta. Also, as is often the case with extensive Italian menus, one stumbles upon pitfalls and mediocrities (we'll get to those later), though we managed to avoid both with a splendid pair of appetizers.

We began with a glimmering plate of carpaccio di salmone -- lusciously marbled sheets of cured salmon topped with lemon olive oil, onions, and capers. It was nothing fancy, but then carpaccio doesn't really require fanciness, and so we came away satisfied. A more complex choice was the superb brodetto di cozze -- beautifully arrayed green-lipped mussels in a tangy garlic, red pepper, and white wine sauce. Though the mussels were as hulking and succulent as could be, the sauce proved the undeniable highlight, and took wonderfully to the crispilicious little garlic toasts interspersed with the mussels.

From there, unfortunately, things slid a bit, although our waiter remained a dashing rogue. I liked my classic Caesar salad with whole anchovies, but didn't love it -- as is the case with 80 percent of the Caesars in this world -- and Barrie felt the same about her insalata della casa. She got the small, which was huge, but only a shade above average: Though nicely dressed with a mild Italian vinaigrette, the mélange of greens, Gorgonzola, almonds, and walnuts lacked the oomph to take it beyond.

Still, these things can be forgiven, especially when your waiter's heart is filled with love for creatures big and small. For example, while chatting us up between courses, he pointed to a dog leashed to a parking meter in front of a bar a few doors down and told us the poor beast had been there for hours. A die-hard animal lover, Barrie thanked him for the information, then stepped back inside the restaurant to rub the pig once again. Within seconds, the dog was in the bar sipping gin and tonic, while a somewhat bewildered-looking man sat leashed to the parking meter, whimpering at passers-by in the hope that one would stop to pat his wretched head.

Our first pasta -- the ravioli papapio -- exuded some of the same magic, and seemed to have been crafted for a hot evening such as this. Huge, homemade ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach melded nicely with peas, itsy-bitsy pieces of diced asparagus (a few spears would have been nice), and a delicate tomato-basil sauce. But then we slid back into the realm of averageness with the risotto di mare, a tremendous heap of arborio laced with calamari, scallops, prawns, and clams. The risotto wasn't sufficiently fused with the light tomato sauce that accompanied it, and thus lacked the creaminess of what can be one of the most fabulous Italian dishes.

Then, something strange happened: As he presented us with our secondi our waiter seemed to have lost his cheerful demeanor. I couldn't figure out why at first, since the medaglioni di maiale -- a monstrous pork medallion wrapped in pancetta, served over sautéed spinach, then topped with mushrooms and balsamic vinegar sauce -- was good, or at least decent, perhaps a bit sweet but nothing to get depressed about. Maybe his funk stemmed from having to serve us the anatra alla modenese -- half of a roasted duck covered with a bland, slightly oily red wine and balsamic reduction.

No, that wasn't it either, I realized as I took my first bite of saltimbocca di pollo (chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella).

I don't blame our waiter for this, since he was nothing more than the bearer of bad food (OK, perhaps he could have warned us). As for whoever cooked the saltimbocca: In my opinion, he or she should be removed from the kitchen, fired, and then beaten mercilessly. For starters, we found not a shred of prosciutto in the dish, and the chicken itself was cut into bits for some reason, so that it resembled sickly McNuggets. Serious mistakes, but nothing compared to the thick blanket of "sage creamy marsala sauce" ladled over the saltimbocca, which tasted entirely of one thing -- cornstarch.

This concoction was so bad even the guy lashed to the parking meter wouldn't eat it. No wonder our waiter seemed so glum.

Meanwhile, Barrie nearly fell out of her chair in a fit of laughter at the look that crept over my face as I chewed. I even tried a second bite (worse), because I love to see her laugh, then ordered something sweet to annihilate the cloying, cornstarch taste. Luckily, we had a lovely tiramisu -- a heaping bowl of lady fingers buried under a cloud of frothy, espresso-laced mascarpone -- and, to finish, two glasses of port (one tawny, one ruby, brand unidentified). Actually, we couldn't tell the difference between the two ports, which prompted another round of giggles. Yes, the food at Il Porcellino could use some work, but still we came away happy in the end -- the reason we went there in the first place.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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