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The Antique Italian Table 

Wednesday, Nov 25 1998
At 8:20 on a Thursday evening, I sat in Antica Trattoria nervously sipping dishwater Orvieto, wondering whether Robert had forgotten our dinner date. I was anxious not only for his company but for his expertise: A month spent north of Genoa and a week in Florence have given me only an elementary education in regional Italian cuisines, whereas Robert lived in Rome for four years and, during that time, vacationed all over Italy's boot.

While I waited, he was frantically conjugating San Francisco's most regular verb, "to park." The valets stationed by the splendid corpse of the Alhambra Theater are shared by five restaurants within a block, including perpetually packed La Folie. Finally, rather than join the queue of drivers, Robert decided to park on his own several blocks away.

Upon his arrival, Robert fell hungrily upon the amuse-bouche of crudites accompanied by a vibrant fresh herb dip resembling cheese-free pesto. (At a return visit on a Sunday, this "pesto" was duller, with a refrigerator taste.) Aside from the crowded-together tables and desperately dim lighting -- we could read our menus only by holding them mere inches from our noses -- he noted that Antica's simple interior resembles that of a peasant home in the countryside near Venice. Many dishes are Venetian, too, which is surprising, since Antica's chef/owner, Ruggero Gadaldi, previously cooked Tuscan and Umbrian cuisine at the now-defunct Etrusca Ristorante.

Among the menu's Veneto classics are fresh sardines in saor ($6.25), a sweet-sour marinade born in the Roman era. Accompanied by crisp slices of fennel root, the sardines tasted something like matjes herring (which is similarly cured in sugar and vinegar). The night's special of alece (white anchovies; $6.50) mingled lightly cured, soft-fleshed silvery fillets with fresh chunks of mandarin orange and lettuce, dressed lightly in fine balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Also a special -- very special indeed -- was a magnificent buckwheat polen-ta ($8.50). In the Veneto countryside, where it's fairly common, buckwheat is called grano saraceno -- "Saracen grain" -- a reference to its Arab-world origin. Its flavor was mild but full-bodied, happily bearing no resemblance either to odorous kasha or bland Aunt Jemima pancakes, and it was accorded star treatment, with a filling of creamy melting mascarpone cheese and an ample topping of delicate chanterelle mushrooms. (In the U.S., chanterelles may be luxury items, but in northern Italy, they're a beloved mainstream ingredient.) Best of all was the subtle, alluring aroma arising from a generous dusting of black truffle specks -- a great and good surprise, since I expected Italy's white truffles, which can't by any stretch be called subtle.

Splendidly accompanying these dishes was a bottle from their own region, a plushy Colli Euganei Rosso ($27), a merlot-cabernet blend from the hill country around Padova -- also known as The Taming of the Shrew's Padua. Antica's Italianate wine list has lower-than-average markups, with most bottles under $30, rising to $60 for especially rich reds. On another visit, I enjoyed an Argiolas Vermentino de Sardegna ($23), an unpretentious Sardinian white with good body and balance; if you appreciate Chilean chardonnays, this has similar values. A small but adequate selection (including both these choices, along with the lily-livered Orvieto I started with) is available by the glass, generally priced at $5.75. The beer list includes Italy's charming Moretti and its rarely seen big brother, Moretti Doppiomalto (malt liquor).

On both visits, we were surrounded by consumers of "cesare" salad ($5.75) -- which, Robert noted, is nearly unknown in Italy. On our return we chose instead the luscious involtini ($6), a plump Asian eggplant overflowing with melted mild goat cheese. Equally irresistible was tortino ($6.50), a light, fluffy mashed-potato pancake the size of a Swiss steak. The menu's "melting gorgonzola" filling was invisible, along with the sun-dried tomato ascribed to the eggplant, but both appetizers were lovely. More tellingly misleading was the description of tortelloni ($7), a pouch of supernally thin spinach pasta "filled with escargot in roasted garlic sauce and fresh thyme." It was actually filled with bread crumbs, colored by a modicum of minced snail meat. Snails are rather bland anyway and this treatment sacrificed their interesting texture and gentle flavor.

Italians often eat pasta as a second course before the main course, but we went the American way, with pasta entrees. Ravishing butternut squash ravioli ($9.50) were classically rendered -- large, well-stuffed pouches, the pasta thin even at the edges, served in brown butter with crisped sage leaves lending their dark herbalism to balance the squash's natural sweetness. The waiter conventionally offered fresh-ground black pepper. Just say no; the dish is perfect. Gnocchi ($9.75) were a different story. The tiny dumplings (of flour, or flour-and-potato) emerged at Antica as soft, doughy tubes uniformly sized and shaped like 38-caliber bullets -- they're evidently not handmade but extruded from a machine. Their light, winy tomato gravy held slightly old-tasting shreds of "wild" rabbit meat, its flavor more tame than game.

Justifiably the favorite entree at Antica is branzino ($15), striped bass with grapes, savoy cabbage, and truffle sauce. It goes fast, so unless you're eating early, you may want to reserve a portion when you call to reserve your table -- it's worth the commitment: Quickly seared on a hell-hot grill, the bass emerged sweet and gorgeously tender, striped with delicious char-marks. I was elated by the surprising interplay of soft, mild greens, sweet grape halves, and the seductive black truffle specks that imbued the sauce with scent and flavor. Very pleasant, if plainer, was maiale ($13.75), grilled pork tenderloin chunks (the thicker chunks were tender, the thin ones dryish), accompanied by a mound of polenta enriched with gloriously gooey Gorgonzola and crisp bits of pancetta, an Italian bacon that's cured, not smoked.

Capesante ($15), by contrast, was a conceptual disaster, a red-meat treatment awkwardly adapted to local health-nuts' seafood mania. Perfectly grilled sea-scallops were blotched with an "aromatic saffron-tomato" sauce resembling ketchup's wicked Italian stepsister. You're evidently supposed to use this crimson goop as gravy to ruin your accompanying mound of oversmooth, underbuttered mashed potatoes.

Several side dishes are offered at the end of the menu. Zucca gialla ($3.50) had pumpkin slivers sauteed nearly dry with garlic, mint, and wine vinegar, the natural sugars forming caramelized crusts, the flesh richly concentrated. Carciofi ($4.50) -- fresh baby artichoke hearts -- were sauteed with olive oil and lemon juice, but the leaf-tips remained spiky enough to scratch the palate. Given the thorniness of American artichokes compared to Italian varieties, perhaps these would be better cooked ahead and kept covered for a few hours before service to soften their spines.

Among the desserts ($4.50-6), we tried a panna cotta, a smooth, trembly vanilla custard surrounded by woeful strawberries exiled in their yet-unripe state from the Southern Hemisphere. Chocolate gelato with amaretto liqueur, crushed hazelnuts, and a shot of espresso proved a full-out sundae, with an unannounced swirl of whipped cream and a drizzle of unmentioned chocolate syrup. Tiramisu was of the model that made this sweet so popular before it came to North America and was cursed with spongecake, chocolate syrup, et al. in the name of chefly "creativity." Its ladyfingers were soaked in the right mix of rum and espresso, with just a little bittersweet chocolate and a not-excessive blanket of mascarpone custard over the top.

As we ate dessert, the room was emptying and the "lite rock" radio playing over the sound system grew audible. A headachy tablemate asked the waiter to turn it down a little. The waiter (who, as overburdened as his counterpart a few evenings earlier, materialized only to take our order and serve our food, never otherwise) turned the volume up. Notwithstanding some misses in the dishes and the understaffed, underlit dining room, Antica provides good reason to gravitate to the foot of quiet, comfortable Russian Hill instead of jangly North Beach when you're hungry for authentic Italian country cooking: The restaurant's best offerings rank among the city's finest in any cuisine.

Antica Trattoria 2400 Polk (at Union), 928-5797. Open Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations usually necessary. Parking: valet $5 (at Alhambra Theater). Muni via the 19 Polk, 41 Greenwich, and 45 Union, plus all Van Ness lines let off one block west.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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