Osteria and Bacco Ristorante

A walk on the mild side
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paulr@sfbg.com

When all else fails, we go to our neighborhood Italian restaurant. And since we're staying in the neighborhood for dinner — whatever neighborhood that might be — we can walk. This means we can drink as much as we want without tempting the after-dinner fates by getting behind the wheel, not that we would dream of doing such a thing. Also, we can pretend we're in Italy. The Italians spend a lot of time walking through their beautiful cities, at least when not scooting about on their Vespas. They tend not to drink too much, either. Wine in Italy is food, and is to be enjoyed like other food: heartily, but not to excess.

While in recent weeks the vanguard of the food involved have settled on just-opened Spruce near Laurel Village, like pigeons descending on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, we fluttered to a threshold nearby on a mild autumn evening. It was that of Osteria, a graciously homey restaurant of a certain age where the locals go when they're not in the mood for trends like squab. (Squab is the food-involved word for pigeon.) The interior, a drawing-room assembly of hand-painted ceramic tiles, wallpapers, striped upholstery, and carved wood columns, has a terra-cotta luminousness, while chef-owner Vahid Ghorbani's menu consists of well-constructed old friends, including a number of veal dishes.

Since veal has been banished from our home kitchen, mostly on grounds of animal cruelty, I find myself powerfully drawn to it in restaurants. Perhaps this is hypocrisy or some other moral failing. Perhaps I should not order veal and enjoy it — but I do and I do, and then that's enough, at least until the next time. Osteria's veal parmesan ($18) consists of several flaps of meat slathered in a garlicky tomato sauce, with slices of cheese melted on top. The meat was tender and tasty enough, if rather beefy, and it occurred to me that if I were making this dish at home, I would use turkey scallops, and they would be just as good. Elsewhere on the plate: neat piles of quartered carrot sticks and trimmed green beans, along with a lone boiled new potato. All handsome in a faintly apologetic way. One of the Dutch masters could have done something attractive with this colorful group.

The eggplant parmesan ($13) was essentially the same dish, with virtue substituted for the veal. I will never cheer for eggplant, but if the bitter juices are salted out and the slices are bathed in a tasty sauce, I can look the other way — backward, perhaps, at the fine first courses. One, an artichoke heart ($9) filled with bay shrimp and dressed like a sundae with a basil vinaigrette, was substantial enough to serve as a light main course, even without the heart of palm flute to one side. The other, a spinach salad ($8) with roasted almonds and gorgonzola, was given a note of insinuation by a dark and handsome balsamic vinaigrette.

For dessert: mocha torte ($6), basically a slice of coffee ice cream cake. Or just watch the people come and go, young and old, in groups big and small, even a table of bears with what could be a cub. Almost like Noe Valley!

Funny you should ask. For years the best Italian restaurant in Noe Valley was Bacco Ristorante (which opened in 1993). Of course, for years the competition was thin. Lately it's intensified, with the arrivals of Incanto, La Ciccia, Pescheria (all on outer Church), and Lupa (just around the corner.) But Bacco's owners, Paolo Dominici and Vincenzo Cucco, haven't been lazing on their laurels. They've picked up a Zagat rating, for one thing, and, for another, they've replaced the terra-cotta paint scheme with one of sage and butter. There's also now a beautiful interior Old World arch.

It would be difficult to improve on the food. We inhaled the crostino ($9.95), a pair of sizable toast rounds spread with a butterlike cannellini puree, then layered with garlic-sautéed broccoli rabe and shavings of pecorino cheese.

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