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Casa Nostra: Nostra Spaghetteria 

Wednesday, Nov 4 2015
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I've been avoiding restaurants in the Mission for the past four months, for no other reason than the neighborhood has long since reached peak exposure. Still, I'm not dogmatic about it, so I went to Nostra Spaghetteria and Bar Mia on Valencia Street, excited to see how the team behind the recently closed Plin reimagined the space and menu. Prices slid down a notch or two, but Nostra is similar to its pasta-heavy predecessor, except that it introduced a custom pasta option that could please picky children and trend-chasing foodies alike. It takes very little pasta from this spaghetteria to satiate a ravenous table, after which the amaro-heavy Bar Mia comes into play.

Knowing that things were destined to end with booze, we chose our starters judiciously. The server rhapsodized about the raviolo al uovo ($14) the way people talk about really good MDMA, so in spite of our inclination to keep the first half light, we fell under her spell and ordered it. It's genuinely jaw-dropping; one taste and you'll realize why it's a single raviolo rather than two or more ravioli: a bigger portion would be cloyingly rich. While there's technically spinach in there, it's just a substrate to support the parmesan, housemade ricotta, brown butter, and truffle oil. Be sure to mop it up with some of Nostra's fresh bread, because otherwise it tastes like it's going to give you the gout. (Note: the raviolo makes a cameo on a $17 burger, too.)

The Brussels sprouts, sprinkled with cheese and barely browned, could have used some vinegar to differentiate them from all the other rich, oily dishes. But for $9, it's hardly a mortal error. And in the duck confit salad ($11), where Brussels sprouts also appeared, I would have preferred bigger pieces of meat and fewer chunks of orange. Since I'm a sucker for octopus — wocka-wocka! — I couldn't resist this braised version, which, at $12 a plate, was especially good. Although larded up with fennel, frisée, cannellinis, and even bone marrow, everything was light enough not to upstage the star.

But building your own entrée is the main attraction at this spaghetteria. Choosing a pasta ($9) and adding a sauce ($3), a vegetable ($3), and a meat ($4) is like matching Mrs. Peacock to the lead pipe in the conservatory. If you're with more than one person and looking to share, it's hard not to feel like you're competing to see who can assemble the most creative dish that also tastes better than everybody else's. That's not an exaggeration; I don't remember the last time I felt such pressure to perform. Among the three of us, we got gnocchi with eggplant, mozzarella, and an arrabbiata sauce (good), spaghetti with tomato cream and turkey meatballs (better), and pappardelle with tomato basil sauce, fontina, and oxtail (best). As a side note, does anybody remember when oxtail was a despised cut (or when butchery was a lowly profession, for that matter)? It's as hard to fathom as the time before ATMs.

Nostra is a family affair, as so many Italian restaurants are. The turkey meatballs are listed as "Mom's" on the check, and although the restaurant name puns on the Italian words for "ours" and "mine," Mia is also the name of Chef Alexander Alioto's daughter. All of this draws attention to a surname that's second only to Sutro for being intertwined with S.F. history. Beyond any association with Alioto's iconic blue-green fish down by the Wharf, this Alioto did stints at the French Laundry, Nob Hill's Seven Hills, and the two-Michelin-starred Ristorante San Domenico in Italy.

Any emphasis on bloodlines ends at the bar, whose manager has the auspicious name Adam Mardigras, and who clearly wants to facilitate proper digestion. All of a sudden, I'm seeing R. Jelinek Fernet — Fernet Branca's cinnamon-y Czech counterpart — everywhere, and while it's on the menu, Nostra doesn't stop there. Operating on the assumption (never once disproven in my experience) that ordering a flight of something automatically makes everything about it better, we got the amaro flight ($15), which came with Foro Amaro, Elisir Novasalus Amaro, and Paolucci Amaro Ciociaro. (With a citrus-y minerality, the Paolucci was the finest.) And it created space for an order of five doughnuts ($8), hot and fresh on a plate of marbled, TCHO-chocolate-and-vanilla sauce. The only drawback was that we weren't there for Nostra's second happy hour, from 10 p.m. until midnight.

Elsewhere on the cocktail front, there is La Costra Nostra (a gin, absinthe, and Dolin Blanc concoction with a lot of botanicals, $12). To say that it's celery-heavy sounds like faint praise at best, but celery bitters have made my home bartending feel like a kid playing with a chemistry set, and here it did a good job of tempering the absinthe.

The décor — with a semi-abstract sculpture like fishbones tipped with LEDs, and a mural by Chris Lux that resembles a Matisse — doesn't entirely cohere. I've knocked other places for refusing to conceal ugly ductwork, but when it works, it works; sub-basement-like or not, something about the ceiling pipes' hard right angles is nice to look at.

I can imagine Nostra falling into the bittersweet trap of becoming popular because of one must-order dish. It wouldn't be the worst thing, but after a series of high-profile closures and retoolings on Valencia Street (Amber Dhara, Abbot's Cellar, Grub, St. Vincent) over the last 18 months, an inexpensive and democratic house of pasta could be a great strategy for lasting success. Or maybe the raviolo is a calculated move to prevent that from happening. Either way, I'm more excited about Valencia than I've been in a while.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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