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In Full Swing 

Baldoria

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
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I've never met a depressed Italian waiter. Granted, I've never been to Italy, but I've encountered at least a hundred Italian waiters over the years and have yet to detect a melancholy soul among them. I've met generous Italian waiters who plied me with free desserts, and terrible Italian waiters who recommended incredibly bad dishes and beamed with love of life the whole time. I've met Italian waitresses, of course, who were equally cheerful, and curt, but still upbeat, Italian waiters. I've met lazy, but apparently happy, Italian waiters, and attentive, charming, downright amorous Italian waiters whose eyes seemed to smile in a way I've never seen among waiters from other nations.

In fact, now that I think about it, I've never met anyone in an Italian restaurant who seemed the least bit morose, which is not to say that I meet such types in other places all that often, but that Italian meals tend to be flavored with at least a dash of baldoria. According to a variety of sources (three Italian dictionaries, an Italian friend), baldoria means "party" or "revelry" or "a riotous time," and would appear to be an excellent name for an Italian eatery. Hence Baldoria the restaurant, which not only lived up to its name but delivered hearty, innovative, skillfully prepared dishes from the first course to the last.

It's an intimate, lively little spot, this Baldoria, nestled on the corner of Larkin and Green streets on the quiet western slope of Russian Hill. As we approached, my friend Jennifer and I spied Christmas lights spiraling into the branches of the tree out front (a festive touch), then a sign that offered parking -- not valet parking, just parking -- which involved our following an Italian gentleman in a van to an undisclosed location and then, presumably, receiving a ride back to the restaurant. That sounded like a funky adventure, and we were going to do it, but then a second fellow stepped out of the restaurant and suggested an alternative: that we flout the laws that hold our society together by parking next to the hydrant out front. Always a fan of living dangerously, I took his advice, and no, I didn't get a ticket.

Once inside, we found wild-eyed Florentines running to and fro, each with a bottle of flammable sambuca in one hand and a lit Roman candle in the other. What a party! No, I'm kidding -- actually, we discovered a chic, urban, neighborhood establishment perfect for dates, a quick bite, or a casual dinner with old friends. Soft music, a tad jazzy, rose toward sleek, industrial-style track lighting and high ceilings, while votive candles flickered behind rows of wine bottles to decidedly pleasing effect. The staff seemed a welcoming bunch, with no aversion to wild gestures or heated conversation, though nothing too crazy happened during dinner. A smoked glass partition in front of the restroom added an exciting nuance to the décor: As patrons exited the restroom, their silhouettes loomed gargantuan, as if giants were stepping into the room from another dimension.

Though he kept referring to me as "Signore," at times our waiter sounded suspiciously like a Frenchman speaking with an Italian accent. Still, I can't prove that, and it didn't really matter, since he was a warmhearted, accommodating young man either way. The menu is a manageably vast, promising document that features nine antipasti, 11 pastas, four gnocchi, six meat and seafood dishes, and a handful of daily specials. An affordably priced wine list (31 Italian reds, 19 Italian whites, a separate page of non-Italian wines) seemed equally auspicious, and yielded a splendid -- and splendidly priced -- Cesari amarone della valpolicella, a cool, dusky, lingering Italian red that never actually seemed to touch the tongue, but slid over it like a morning breeze.

We began with the antipasto della casa, a magnificent assortment of tastes that included salami, lightly marinated rings of calamari, mozzarella, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant and zucchini, chilled asparagus spears, olives, a few artichoke hearts, and a surprisingly appropriate slice of peeled orange. A Caesar salad with garlic, anchovies, shaved Parmesan, and croutons lived up to our expectations, but didn't exceed them, while our third appetizer, cozze e vongole al pomodoro, proved an intriguing mix. The assortment of clams and huge, juicy mussels sautéed with tomato and garlic exuded the tiniest hint of smokiness. Whether this came from the clams, the mussels, or some other ingredient never became clear, but it was a delicate, haunting sensation, and we dug it.

Pastas and gnocchi are all homemade at Baldoria, and God bless the kitchen for that. To sample the former, we selected the pasta of the day, perfectly al dente linguine laced with bits of rabbit, then bathed in a light tomato-cream sauce. As it turned out, the linguine brought up a memory, taking me back to the day when a former roommate found a stray rabbit in Golden Gate Park, brought it to our apartment, and adopted it. To return the favor, the ungrateful rodent pissed on my futon, and thus, I've taken immense pleasure consuming members of the species ever since. The meat can be a tad dry, but in this case it was tender, moist, lightly pungent, and quite delectable from the first bite to the last.

Meanwhile, our mare e mondi gnocchi arrived far too hot, giving me time to meditate on the nature of potato dumplings. They can be a risky choice, and run the gamut from incredible, melting tenderness to starchy, gluelike inedibility. At Baldoria, we received a splendid example of the former -- a heaping plate of achingly soft spinach gnocchi served with sautéed spinach, bits of fresh salmon, and a light, creamy mascarpone sauce. The seasonings showed a delicate touch, and the various ingredients were perfectly balanced; if I'd been wearing a cap, I would have doffed it to the chef.

Things slid a bit when we moved on to secondi, but not much. The cinghiale e uvetta proved the best -- a lean, tender, slightly gamy (and hence quite flavorful) wild boar tenderloin braised with pine nuts and raisins in a light barolo sauce. Our second selection -- half a lobster served with hulking, grilled jumbo prawns -- arrived in dramatic fashion on a flounder-shaped platter, but the accompanying lemon sauce lacked verve, and didn't live up to the presentation. Still, when we took the dish for what it was -- a crustacean lover's dream come true -- it seemed quite adequate, since the lobster tasted buttery and good, like lobster should, the prawns smoky and juicy. Nothing fancy, perhaps, but sometimes such straightforwardness is enough.

I hate to get anyone's hopes up, but something tells me that if you, too, order a seven-course dinner at Baldoria, the house will comp you a pair of desserts, as it did us. Or, if this doesn't happen, drop a few bucks on a creamy, melting, cocoa-dusted tiramisu, or, even better, on a savory Campari cheesecake tart topped with a light strawberry sauce. They were a pretty pair of sweets, rendered even prettier by the light fruit reduction drizzled over the plate in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge. To finish, we suffered through the only disappointment of the evening -- a watery, piece-of-crap Warre's 10-year-old tawny port, and a watery, equally wretched Warre's late-bottled vintage port. Perhaps the folks at Warre's are more to blame for that than the folks at Baldoria, but still, I feel compelled to make the following suggestion: Taylor Fladgate 20-year-old tawny. Beyond that, I guess the best way to sum it up is as follows: Baldoria just plain delivered.

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Greg Hugunin

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