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Very Little Italy

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
After a century and a half of culinary colonialism, San Francisco's Italian restaurants have evolved in so many different directions that there are options for every mood and financial outlook. There are the generic, moderately priced neighborhood joints, of which Antica is the tastiest example. The classic candle-in-the-Chianti-bottle atmo endures at Capp's Corner, the Gold Spike, and other dwindling North Beach venues. New, Original, and Westlake Joe's serve up California variations on the mother cuisine in lounge-ier if equally hallowed surroundings. Other places focus on Italy's disparate regions -- Laghi on Emilia-Romagna, Albona on the Istrian-Adriatic region, and Lo Coco on Sicily. Cravings for specific Italianate dishes can be satisfied at specific Italianate locales: Michelangelo for pasta, Tomasso's for pizza, Little City for antipasti. Trendier noshing is available at Rose Pistola, while Acquerello offers up the city's only top-drawer, crystal-goblet setting for Italian haute cuisine.

Then there are the tourist traps. Tourist traps come in all flavors -- the prototypical example being Calvin Trillin's "Maison de la Casa House, Continental Cuisine" -- but the Italian variety is particularly conducive to expense-account suave. Here the surroundings are pure velvet, the dishes uptown, and the waiters trained to pronounce the daily specials with the bland, murmured assurance of a KDFC DJ. Such a place should be in an out-of-the-way location (to create that hidden-jewel mystique), preferably one with a postcard view, and offer food that's often indifferent, sometimes delectable, and usually overmatched by the satin-lined trappings.

Venticello is a case in point. The setting's splendid: a secluded, vertiginous corner of Nob Hill three blocks from Grace Cathedral and Huntington Park. Inside a handsome residential building are two airy levels of starched tablecloths, sparkling stemware, and flickering candlelight. The walls are a sponge-painted light salmon accented with rich woodwork and antique wine cabinets. There's a small marble-topped bar upstairs, and an attractive, wood-burning, cobalt-tiled oven dominates the main room. A distant wedge of the Bay Bridge peeps through the tall windows, and every several minutes the Hyde Street cable car clatters past on its way to Union Square. The ambience is friendly despite the luxe: Good conversation is the order of the evening, and most of the diners repose as if the traveler's checks are plentiful and they're a long way from home.

But then there's the menu. Because it assumes the burden of so many fretful aspirations, the results are often disappointing. Some of the dishes sound unpleasant from the get-go: duck with vanilla, veal with sambuca. Such culinary goofiness might tantalize the rental-car set, but we jaded natives tend to prefer the simple Mediterranean pleasures of amber olive oil, roasted garlic, and tiny, salty olives.

Luckily that's how Venticello kicks off its evening meal. A soft, warm loaf of herb-scented bread arrives with a saucer of thick, fragrant olive oil swimming with pelletlike black olives that bring the Mediterranean Basin to mind with every nibble. A gigantic head of slowly baked garlic resides nearby, yielding soft, sweet cloves ideal for spreading. This complimentary antipasto almost makes up for the overly vermouthed martinis, which arrive at table toasty-warm from the distant upstairs bar.

The other starters are equally impressive. The melanzane ripiene is richness exemplified: grilled eggplant fillets rolled into tubes, stuffed with milky ricotta and creamy mascarpone, blanketed with a thick marinara sauce chunky with tomatoes, and baked until bubbly but not toothless. The calamari salad is an imaginative variation on the usual deep-fried appetite-slayer: Tender and not rubbery, the squid comes blended with Tuscan beans in a tangy, refreshing lime and mint vinaigrette. Another salad, the barbabietola, combines earthy red and yellow beets with a crisp selection of peppery greens in a light dressing that tastes of tarragon, capers, and the Florentine fennel known as finocchio. Only the pizzetta rustica is a disappointment. Despite its origins -- the tiled oven a few yards from our table -- the crust is limp and spongy and the topping of provolone, tomatoes, and a few token anchovies is forgettable.

The pizzetta was a foretelling of the main dishes. None of the entrees we sampled had much individual resonance; although the textures were admirably creamy, or tender, or crisp, most of the flavors came from what might be called masking sauces. One example is the aforementioned duck, a blackened breast that melts in your mouth but doesn't taste like anything in particular; what you experience instead is the weirdly sweet port sauce flavored with vanilla. (The mound of dense, lukewarm polenta that sits nearby tastes mostly of cheddar cheese.) Another victim of the saucing war is the filet mignon. Though tender, it doesn't have that robust beefy essence, and comes drizzled with a sweet, fruity shallot-Barolo sauce and wrapped in pig meat that seems more like overcooked Farmer John bacon than the pancetta advertised on the menu. Apart from the plump, succulent scampi that share its platter, the risotto is overcooked, heavy, and bland, with no hint of saffron and only the occasional undercooked fava to lend the dish any texture. The al dente spinach ravioli, on the other hand, features nice, simple flavors and a pleasantly sharp sauce edged with lemon, pink peppercorns, and grappa.

The desserts are as uninspiring as most of the entrees. Panna cotta, the crème brûlée of 21st-century S.F., appears here as a hard, lardlike brick of white boredom -- a far cry from the ethereal baked cream one encounters at any number of local Italian eateries. The flourless chocolate torte is as soullessly brown as the panna cotta is meaninglessly white; it's also just as dense and bereft of any chocolatiness. The chestnut mousse, served attractively in a martini glass, is likewise free of its titular flavor and is grainy and sugary to boot. Only the tiramisu is notably satisfying: Moist, velvety, and robust with the flavors of espresso, chocolate, and booze, it's served in a generous slab that's spiritually fulfilling.

The wine list is bountifully Italian, with a number of California vintages thrown in for good measure; we split the ticket with a floral pinot grigio and a soft cabernet, the latter a pleasant match for the otherwise forgettable filet mignon. Meanwhile, our waiter was smooth and amusingly condescending (even if he didn't know that finocchio is more than just slang for an Italian homosexual), the relatively reasonable bill added to our good mood, and the Tonga Room and its bamboo-thatched cachet awaited a mere five blocks to the southeast. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em -- but you might want to fill up elsewhere before you do.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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