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Middling Italy 


Wednesday, Dec 19 2001
There's a restaurant in the town I grew up in that's been serving the same fair-to-middling Italian food for decades. Everyone goes there for lunch or dinner or a cocktail, and on any given Saturday night the din is stratospheric. The owners possess one of the town's rare, sought-after liquor licenses, but the real reason the place is so popular is that it's dependably changeless, with its roaring hearth that's especially welcoming when the wintertime shadows are unusually long. After years of hit-or-miss ordering I can even summon up three or four menu items that are genuinely tasty. But most of all it's a place to go to when the workday is done, the evening news has taken its toll, and a new and exotic experience is the furthest thing from your mind.

Noi, a newish Italian restaurant at 24th and Castro, enjoys the same sort of comfortable cachet. (The name means "we" in Italian.) In its five months of operation it has evolved into a neighborhood standby, a place where Noe Valley's myriad couples and upwardly mobile families can sit down to a filling, nutritious meal when the prospect of cooking is too daunting to contemplate. The split-level space is pleasantly clean and simple in appearance. A beige and brown color scheme seasonally accented with tiny white lights and boughs of evergreen creates a cozy Christmastime ambience. After a friendly greeting from the host, you'll find the mood convivial and the service aptly sociable. And the food, for the most part, is every bit as familiar as if you'd picked it up at Trader Joe's and defrosted it yourself.

The problem is that you're paying restaurant prices for the privilege. Even the plates that rise above the supermarket level are largely ill conceived. Case in point: the prawn-arugula appetizer. The prawns are plump and tasty enough, sautéed as they are with capers and brandy, but the dish bears an unpleasantly strident alcoholic aftertaste that only increases as you make your way down to the booze-drenched arugula. Another starter, the quail, is nicely gamy, but the overcooked little critter is served atop a triangle of flavor-free grilled polenta. An overabundance of saccharine raspberry vinaigrette dominates an otherwise respectable baby spinach salad dotted with toasted walnuts and creamy goat cheese. You'd do best to begin your meal as the Italians have for five centuries, with the classic simplicity of prosciutto and melon. Noi's version is an exemplar of salty, musky, sweet, and smoky contrasts, complete with prosciutto of the unrivaled, delicately silky Parma variety.

The pasta choices include a Golden Grain-like rigatoni smeared with a perfunctory tomato sauce; advertised flourishes of caramelized onion, pancetta, and Romano cheese add little flavor or substance. It's merely a filling, inoffensive platter of starch. Not quite so tasty (ahem) is the gnocchi, a difficult dish to master in any circumstance and especially unimpressive here. Instead of the puffy pillows of steam and semolina I've been lucky enough to encounter elsewhere, these gnocchi are tough, chewy, and unhampered by flavor despite the presence of mushrooms and black truffles. (Part of the problem may be the absence of Parmigiano, pecorino, or any of the other hard cheeses so necessary to the success of this delicate dish.)

Entrees fare little better. The chicken Milanese consists of two slender fillets breaded and then cooked until tough, lukewarm, and flavorless, served with ho-hum cherry tomatoes and arugula. As a side dish we ordered the spicy broccoli, a misnomer if ever there was one. Despite visible red pepper flakes, nothing tasted spicy in this oily, undercooked vegetable. On the other hand there's the saltimbocca, the unexpected star of Noi's otherwise listless menu. This classic example of Roman cuisine combines a few simple ingredients -- veal, prosciutto, and sage -- into a richly satisfying dish. Two veal scallops are pounded until thin and tender, sautéed in a pound or so of butter, scented with the earthy aroma of sage, and topped with paper-thin shavings of that sweet, smoky Parma prosciutto. The results are unfussy and edifying, especially when accompanied by a bushel of pungent, olive oil-drizzled spinach, a verdant foil for the buttery main event.

For dessert we tried the white chocolate lemon tart, a mild confection in a flaky crust that nevertheless tasted store-bought. Heavy on the Reddi-wip and light on the espresso, chocolate, and Marsala, the tiramisu was a big, creamy blob without that boozy, caffeinated jolt that usually makes it, as its name translates, such a "pick-me-up." Caffeine-free tea, like Parmigiano, was nowhere to be found, and our coffee cups were not refilled.

Given all that, why did we enjoy our evening at Noi as much as we did? The short answer is that food is only one aspect of any restaurantgoing experience -- the most important, certainly, but not the entire focus. Even the perfunctory fare dished out at Noi can't entirely overwhelm the restaurant's virtues: its hospitality, charm, and Italian warmth. After dinner we strolled along chilly, rain-slick 24th Street, one of my favorite thoroughfares in the city. Past the Mystery Book Store and the 24th Street Cheese Company and the Noe Valley Bakery, we settled into a warm, good-smelling coffeehouse where Ella Fitzgerald was singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the most bittersweet of holiday ballads. Through the front windows we could see passers-by bundled up against the cold and mist, the street-side Christmas lights whipping in the wind. A bit of cozy familiarity can be a real blessing, especially during this particular holiday season.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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