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Italian With Tears 

The forgettable fare at Tonno Rosso feels like nobody cares

Wednesday, Aug 11 2004
My friend Julie was in town for her second annual "pack up Berkeley-student daughter and move her back to L.A. for the summer" visit, and the three of us had a date for dinner. Both she and her daughter, Anna, love Italian food (well, who doesn't?), plus I've always found Italian a safer bet for my semivegetarian goddaughter, who sometimes eats chicken or duck, than Chinese or Indian, my other choices for happy meals with non-meat-eaters. So I picked Tonno Rosso, a new spot on the mini-Restaurant Row of Steuart Street, where most of the restaurants front on the Embarcadero, giving a number of diners stunning waterfront views.

I'd been seduced, a little, by some press-release prose found on a reservations Web site: "Specifically, Tonno Rosso is a soulful and heartfelt synthesis of five Italian regions ... the rich sophistication of Lombardia, the rustic simplicity of Piemonte, the fresh and gusty [sic] flavors of Liguria, the confident and creative 'Cucina di Toscano' and finally the warm and sexy Amalfi Coast. Each of these regions contributes to the food, wine and ambiance of Tonno Rosso in different but complementing ways. Our menu offers sublime dishes from timeless Florentine trattorias. The wine list features the same Nebbiolos enjoyed at enotecas in Alba. The bar and its spirits evoke the elusive pleasures of a lazy day in Positano."

The deserted downtown streets on a Sunday night evoked the elusive pleasures of a lazy day in San Francisco -- and the rarer one of snagging an easy parking place. Even though Tonno Rosso was largely empty when we arrived for our 6:30 reservation, the hostess attempted to seat us in the most casual (and to me the least appealing) part of the restaurant, at the cafelike wooden chairs and tables by the long windows that open onto Steuart Street. (This was a performance repeated on each of my three visits, whether I was there for lunch or dinner, with male or female guests.) "Oh," I wheedled, "my friends are from out of town, and I wanted them to see your beautiful view." So she marched us past the bar and a middle section, boasting deep, comfy-looking upholstered booths (which seemed as though they could easily seat six), to the room with a view.

And a terrific view it was, with the Bay Bridge looming up above, a matchless artwork, looking like a painting by Charles Sheeler or a photograph by Paul Strand. It was a lovely evening, and the French windows were open to the soft air. We felt lucky to be there.

The semimagical mood was broken by our oddly enthusiastic waiter, who greeted me like an old friend. When I said that I didn't think we knew each other, he insisted that we had met and talked at a recent restaurant street fair -- the kind of thing I wouldn't attend on a bet. He then further endeared himself to us by whisking to the table two cocktail glasses filled with ice and a mysterious clear liquid, which looked nothing like the Negronis Julie and I had ordered. I said as much, then took a sip, and got a refreshing taste of tonic water as a clearly embarrassed manager rushed up and removed the glasses, which had been chilling while the bartender shook up our drinks.

We started with the farinata genovese, a thin, fried chickpea pancake (known as socca in the South of France) cut into quarters, with a topknot of lightly dressed mâche leaves and a few sprigs of frisée, sided with a few nicely sharp pickled ramps, the wild onions that are a touchstone of spring. Slightly oily, pleasantly floury under its crisp fried crust, it was an unusual and successful opening gesture.

A pasta course came next. Julie and I enjoyed the ravioli de maiale that we shared, tender pasta filled with shredded pork shoulder and fontina in an unusual pesto made with cavolo nero, the black cabbage popular in Tuscany. I was less enthralled with Anna's pappardelle "Portofino," the wide noodles sauced with both pesto and tomato sauce ("Is that like putting both mustard and ketchup on a burger?" I asked. "Don't they cancel each other out?"). The ingredients were obviously fresh, but the dish was rather dull.

I thought our three main courses were dull, too. I was a little embarrassed, because a year ago I'd taken Julie and Anna to Incanto, where we'd had a superb and memorable meal, one that would have been nearly impossible to equal anywhere but there. Tonno Rosso doesn't have the ambition of such a place, but still I felt it was letting me down.

Anna and Julie ordered from the rosticerria e griglia section of the menu (there's an open wood-fired oven near the bar, on the opposite side of the room from the kitchen) -- anatra (duck) for Anna and coscia di agnello (leg of lamb) for Julie. Neither was imbued with woodsmoke, or even especially flavorful. The lamb was especially disappointing, its slices carelessly arranged on a heap of bright green, overthymed, slightly underdone fava beans. It's not just that I've forgotten the food since I've eaten it -- it's that I forgot it while I was eating it. Sometimes when I eat out, I feel that the food has so little thought behind it that it's just there to hold down the plate: You have to have food for it to be a restaurant.

This experience didn't feel quite so sinister. There were ideas behind the menu, though amberjack tartare with crème fraîche and seared scallops with chicories, Sichuan peppercorns, and ginger seemed unlike anything you'd find in Lombardia, Piemonte, Liguria, Tuscany, or the Amalfi Coast. Nor was I convinced by the equally unexpected addition of avocado to my fegato di vitello, seared calf's liver. I love avocado, I adore avocado, I like it in all manner of dishes, but if there is one food that isn't improved by avocado, it's liver. The rare liver and the slices of ripe avocado were too similar in texture and felt slimy instead of suave, and the elusive flavor of the avocado was lost amid the caramelized cipollini onions.

I was disappointed by our patate fritti al tartufi e grana padura, too; the menu said, "Just order it," and I did, without asking what it was. I'd expected something like tater tots, mashed potatoes infused with truffles and cheese -- maybe I'd thought "fritters" when I read "fritti" -- or even fried potato chunks, and got potato chips (house-made), sprinkled with chopped chives, chunks of cheese, truffle oil, and lots of salt. Fried potatoes, sure, and a nice nibble, though probably better with drinks than as a side dish.

For dessert, we shared a refreshing parfait of chopped fruit (surprisingly unseasonable apples and pears) steeped in grappa and spooned over vanilla ice cream, a simple and satisfying assembly.

If I'd been dining as a civilian, I would have felt no impulse to return. Instead I showed up, a month or so later, with Ron for an impromptu light lunch. Try as I might to steer him toward something more interesting (a pressed confit of tuna sandwich, say, or halibut simmered in "crazy" tomato-caper sauce), Ron wanted the same damn pappardelle that Anna had had. Sometimes there's nothing you can do. He liked it, especially since his usual lunch is a sandwich. I was happier with my polpettone alla griglia -- Tonno Rosso's take on a hamburger, which is to say highly seasoned chopped steak, grilled rare and juicy and served on sturdy Italian bread -- than with anything I'd eaten at my earlier dinner. And we were served by a competent and swift waiter who called me "sweetheart." The feeling was mutual.

But a second dinner, with Lee on a Saturday night, was no more convincing than my first. Lee, a vegetarian, ordered two antipasti: a rerun of the chickpea pancake, which had lost its fillip of pickled ramps, and a fritto misto primavera, a decent mixed fry of spring vegetables (fennel, zucchini, and onions), served in a heap and sided by a little round dish of marinara sauce amped up with lemon peel. (I talked her out of the insalata tropicale, a singularly un-Italianate assortment of avocado, grapefruit, hearts of palm, celery, and corn.)

In hindsight I should have ordered seafood, and tonno rosso at that (seared tuna in a spicy red sauce), but I was in a meat mood -- maybe because I was with a vegetarian -- and so ignored both the bistecca alla fiorentina, at $29.75 the highest-priced main course by about $10, and the wood-grilled pork chop for another try at the lamb. It came, too rare, on a pile of favas mixed with undercooked slices of onion and largish chunks of pancetta, a tasty combination that somehow didn't go with the meat. Our side order of cauliflower with olives and garlic had stayed on the fire a bit too long.

For dessert I chose a parfait amaretto, described as drunken cherries with an amaretto mousse; it was a nice enough sweet, once I'd gotten over the fact that the cherries were distinctly undrunk and the mousse bereft of any whiff of the almond-flavored liqueur. The dish didn't need the three glassy shards of nut brittle stuck in it. Lee was luckier with her mascarpone cheesecake topped with a layer of lemony panna cotta and plump blueberries -- one of the few things I'd had here that could actually be called delicious.

Tonno Rosso is owned by the Real Restaurant group, 20-year veterans of the Bay Area dining scene whose current stable includes the dependable, even delightful Fog City Diner, Bix, and Tra Vigne (though the company has struggled recently, closing Gordon's House of Fine Eats and reimagining Verbena and BeauCoup). This new spot replaces Red Herring, and a cynic might think that the lease required Real to put in a restaurant, any restaurant, resulting in a place that feels careless, more half-baked than fully cooked.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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