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We prefer the Italian to the steak at this glamorous Italian chophouse

Wednesday, Nov 1 2006
One of the best things about the art of eating is the infinite variety of gustatory choices out there — whether you want to grab a solitary burger, sit with friends around a table covered with tapas or Chinese food, or share an elegant multi-course tasting menu with the object of your affection, San Francisco has numerous options available. However, every once in a while, only one thing will satisfy me, and in that particular area I think we're somewhat ill-served.

I'm referring to that atavistic, caveman meal: a thick slab of grilled meat. (And I like it rare and juicy — a euphemism for oozing blood. "Charred rare," in steakhouse lingo, or, even more disturbingly, "black-and-blue.")

I mourned the recent disappearance of Nob Hill's excellent C&L Steakhouse, which has left us with a couple of outposts of pricey national chains (Morton's and Ruth's Chris), a noisy place with decent if not stellar meat (Izzy's), an old-fashioned place with hit-or-miss meat (Alfred's Steak House), a couple of devotees of grass-fed beef (El Raigon and Acme Chophouse), and a local classic (Harris'), where I've had a couple of rather disappointing meals.

Meanwhile, not only is New York stocked with venerable steakhouses, but it seems as if every third opening is a new temple of meat. And the nation's top chefs (Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Palmer, Tom Colicchio, even local boy Michael Mina) are vying with each other to cover Las Vegas with steakhouses. I especially like Mina's choice of name, the triple-punning Strip Steak.

So I had one thing in mind when Peter allowed as how he'd like to revisit Joe DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse, where he, Anita, and Anita's aunt Yvonne had recently shared a memorable meal: meat. After I'd gotten over my surprise that this difficult-to-please trio had enjoyed a meal at a place whose lineage didn't exactly inspire me, being the first San Francisco outpost of the owners of Walnut Creek's Bing Crosby's and McCovey's restaurants.

I had been a tiny bit disappointed that DiMaggio's had taken over the Fior d'Italia space after "America's oldest Italian restaurant" had been burned out last year. Yes, I know that 601 Union was Fior's fifth location, and that it had cheerfully moved on after at least two previous fires.

I remember the old premises as a warren of cramped little rooms, now magically transformed into a number of big, airy, open rooms: It seems impossible that this much luxurious high-ceilinged space was here before. Did Joe DiMaggio's take over adjacent quarters? None of the servers seem to know. I admire the layout as we're led to our table. There's a big foyer with a glittering tile floor that is triangulated with a long bar area along Stockton and a comfortable lounge area with windows overlooking Washington Square, behind which is the main dining room, a sea of linened tables ringed with massive dark leather booths.

"What did you have?" I ask Peter, as we peruse the big menus: nine appetizers, five salads, one soup (minestrone), eight pastas, four pizzas, nine Italianate entrees, eight steaks and chops, five vegetable sides. He mentions, glowingly, the fritto misto, a salad of mixed greens, strozzaprete pasta with wild boar bolognese, basil gnocchi with smoked chicken, rabbit three ways. "But none of you had steak!" I cry. I'm sure we're going to remedy that tonight. My only question, usually, is whether I'm in the mood for a New York, a rib-eye, or a Porterhouse. But when I glance at the meat list, I get a little sticker shock: The steaks range in price from $36 to, gulp, $49. Which seem even higher because the pasta prices are solidly in the teens, and the non-steak entrees top out at $26. So when Peter says he's having trouble deciding between the New York strip and linguini with clam sauce, I say let's get them both and split them.

We begin with the chilled seafood sampler for two, which belies its name when it's brought to the table bellowing steam, which turns out to be emanating from a kitschy miniature Vesuvius of dry ice. Once the fog clears, we see a small split lobster, four oysters, four clams, eight mussels, a couple of huge shrimp, and a small cup of ceviche, as well as lemons, mignonette and champagne vinaigrette, and tartar sauce. Everything is impeccable: tender and delicious.

The massive New York, which we ordered rare ("Turn it and burn it," Peter told our server, cheerfully, when he warned us how thick it was), comes with a beautifully cooked individual potato and Parmesan gratin and a medley of zucchini, tomato, and beans, also carefully prepared, which somewhat ameliorates its cost. The few vegetable sides available, all $4, feature polenta instead of the expected baked potato, and asparagus instead of creamed spinach. It's napped with a thin red wine sauce that I find superfluous and is not mentioned on the menu. It's not quite the steak of my dreams, but it has a good beefy tang and cuts like butter.

I'm more impressed with the linguini with clams, a dozen of which perch in their shells atop the pasta, which is entwined with sweet tomatoes, basil shreds, and big chunks of tasty linguisa sausage, in a very light white wine sauce. This is a lovely rendition of the dish.

We finish with a shared trio of panna cotta, an oddly grainy chocolate mocha version alongside a dense pistachio and a forgettable fruit-based one — we're told it's mango, but it doesn't taste much like anything.

I can't say that DiMaggio's hit this one out of the park, exactly, but I admire the setting, the amazing collection of vintage photographs of DiMaggio both on and off the field, the excellent service, the nice list of wines (with some unexpected and interesting choices by the glass), and I'm looking forward to returning with my parents.

They're also impressed with the room, especially the two huge modern chandeliers, which we admire from our huge semicircular booth. Our starters include two crisp crab cakes, improved by a champagne butter sauce drizzled on one side with chili oil, the other with basil, and a tiny salad of mizuna and frisée; a massive portion of pepper-rubbed carpaccio with a lot of good beef flavor, topped with salt-packed capers and flaked Reggiano, quite the bargain for $10; and a surprisingly large Margherita pizza, eight slices, an ordinary crust topped with good mozzarella, lovely toy box tomatoes, and shredded fresh basil.

We continue with a delightfully tender and tasty veal braciole, two rolls of the pale meat rolled around prosciutto and provolone, perched atop soft polenta in a fresh marinara sauce, and a 24-ounce sliced Porterhouse that my father and I split, which generously boasts a whole potato gratin and a full portion of vegetables on each plate. Again, I wish I'd been warned about the inevitable sweetish red wine sauce, which I think masks rather than enhances the essential qualities of the good meat (dry-aged by DiMaggio's Midwestern Angus purveyors, but nobody seems to know for how long).

We'll skip over the desserts, a chocolate "soufflé" that's really a molten chocolate cake and a tricked-out cheesecake that sounds better than it tastes. Dessert here needs work.

To my surprise I find myself more pleased with the Italian part of DiMaggio's name, rather than the Chophouse. Which means that you can enjoy its posh, glamorous setting for less than you'd think possible.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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