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Small Wonder 

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
It might be overstating the case to call Caffe Ponte Vecchio the perfect trattoria, but you certainly can't beat it for the price. It is utterly unflashy, and tiny and cozy inside, and it serves an awesomely comforting and satisfying lasagna.

The restaurant seats maybe 20 people, and is rarely staffed by more than two -- often, only one person handles the entirety of the cooking, while at the same time waiting tables. That is manageable, because the pace is leisurely and the minuscule kitchen can't really accommodate two cooks. In fact, it doesn't even have a stove -- just an oven and two electric burners. But what's produced there can be terrific.

The dinner menu includes a variety of pastas and little pizzas, salads, antipasti, and a daily main course or two. There is also a deliciously hearty pappa ($3.50), a thick, garlicky tomato soup whose foundation is bread -- if you start with it, you risk not having room for the pleasures to come. The insalata Ponte Vecchio ($4.50) contains mixed baby greens, slices of avocado, and feta cheese, and is dressed in a somewhat viscous, semisweet vinaigrette. The insalata Cesare is a large and hearty Caesar salad for $4.25.

Among the antipasti, we found the enormous Ponte Vecchio ($7.95), a platter of cold meats and cheese for two, scrumptious but simply too large to merely whet the appetite. The caprese ($4.50) is an excellent example of its species: fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil, basking with harmonious simplicity in a tangy rustic olive oil. The antipasto vegetariano ($3.95) is a delicious (and, again, large) collection of cold marinated grilled vegetables including bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini.

The pizzas ($5.95-6.95) are all fairly similar, 8-inch-diameter pies with sauce, excellent cheese, and toppings ranging from mushrooms to prosciutto to grilled vegetables; the quattro stagione is the most exciting. The crusts are a little too chewy and the sauce a little too salty, but the pizzas are still amply better than average.

The pasta department, however, is where Ponte Vecchio shines. There are two lasagnas, the vegetariana and the classica (both $6.95). They are 2 inches thick, and wonderfully dense and juicy -- never overcooked. The vegetariana layers little broccoli florets, zucchini and carrot slices, fresh cheese, and toothsome noodles with thick tomato sauce and a luxurious bechamel, which makes the dish. Each order is served very hot in an individual casserole. The classica's equation is simple, tomatoey meat and cheese layers, less subtle than its counterpart but heartier. The trick to good lasagna is the way the ingredients are united: They must neither go their individual ways nor form an oppressively uniform mass. Bechamel sauce, for example, should have subtle overtones of onion and spice. Are those overtones masked in your lasagna? Or are they faintly present, and complementary to the tomato sauce? Ponte Vecchio can set you straight.

Baked rigatoni ($5.95), topped with cheese, is another delight to the senses, as are the pungent puttanesca ($6.95) and the fiery penne arrabbiata ($6.95). Farfalle alla vodka's cream and tomato sauce is suffused with bits of smoked salmon, which add a great deal to, but don't quite dominate, the dish ($7.95). Gnocchi ($6.95), which are available occasionally, are a little firmer than is ideal. The daily main course is always exceptional. On a recent night, it was involtini, cylinders of thin steak wrapped around ham and filled with cheese. Rich and heavy and sumptuous, it had a surprising complexity of flavor.

Desserts are not the high point of a meal at Caffe Ponte Vecchio. The creme caramel ($2.95) is quite good, but could be firmer. The cheesecake ($3.95), on the other hand, is almost comically dense: A single slice can satisfy three diners easily. The tiramisu ($3.95) is standard, not too sweet, a bit on the light side. And the sorbets ($2.95), although cleverly served inside halved fruit, are sometimes not that fresh. It would not be a mistake to plan your meal so that all you have room for at the end is espresso.

The wine list, like the restaurant, is very small and very Italian, consisting of maybe six reds and four whites. The Chiantis and the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo all tend toward astringency, but the sangiovese is tasty, robust enough for the food, and a bargain at $18. There are also a couple of beers available -- Gordon Biersch and Heineken -- which are a nice touch when there's soccer on the TV.

Ponte Vecchio is unpretentious and homey, almost more like a relative's house than a restaurant. It is a neighborhood secret, operating on a very small scale; but if it were just a little larger, and flashy enough to attract the custom, the quality of the overall experience would make it a citywide destination.

Caffe Ponte Vecchio
1136 Valencia (at 22nd Street), 206-9677. Open 12 to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 6 to 10 p.m for dinner. No lunch Saturday. Closed Sunday. Parking: not too bad on the street, and there's a public lot at 22nd and Capp. Muni: 14, 26, 48, 49, 67; 24th and Mission BART station. Noise level: peaceful. Reservations a good idea. Wheelchair accessible.

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Paul Adams


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