Ragazza

Herbal perfumes and chili heat grab attention at this Divisadero spot beneath the Metro Hotel, complementing delectable pizzas

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Oven-roasted local sardines
PHOTO BY RORY MCNAMARA

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Ragazza is the younger sorella of Sharon Ardiana's Gialina in Glen Park and, as is so often the case with siblings, the two restaurants do and do not resemble each other. Much of the differences are traceable to the respective neighborhoods. Glen Park (where we find Gialina) has in recent years become an annex of city's baby belt, whose big, shiny buckle is just over the hill in Noe Valley. Kids like pizza, and Gialina has fine pizza, along with a selection of pastas, a roast or two, and a selection of contorni. Eating at Gialina is a little like waiting to check in for a flight on Southwest Airlines: the environment is lively, lighthearted, and swarming with small children. (Shouldn't shrieking children be flown on their own airline, perhaps Screaming Babies Airways, with a big screaming baby head painted on the tail of every plane. But if they want to eat at Gialina, okay.)

Ragazza, by contrast, brings haute pizza culture to a vortex of the Haights (lower and upper) and NoPa that so far shows few signs of turning into kiddieland. The restaurant opened recently in a space that's worn quite a few masks over the past decade; 10 years ago, it was a bistro called Metro Café, then became a fine Nepalese restaurant called Metro Kathmandu, reverted briefly to Metro Café, and now this.

There is nothing distinctive about the mid-block, storefront setting. The glowing red paint scheme of the Kathmandu era has been dialed back to milder earth tones. Otherwise, the look of the restaurant is little different. (In this aesthetic continuity, too, Ragazza differs from its older sibling, whose neglected space was heavily made over before its opening in early 2007.)

Ragazza's menu is somewhat less pizza-pie-centric than Gialina's. The new place offers a number of antipasti choices and small plates, along with several roasted items. (Gialina offers one antipasto and one roast.) You could make do very nicely here without having a pizza at all. But the bulk of the clientele seems to understand Ragazza to be a pizzeria at heart, and so the pies emerge from the kitchen in a steady stream, with at least one seeming to turn up on virtually every table. It's like watching a quarterback spread the ball around to eight different receivers.

Although Ragazza doesn't offer Gialina's fabled chili-bomb pizza, the aptly named atomica, it does have a spicy pie of its own, the moto, fired with Calabrian chilis. (These have an aromatic fume all their own and haven't really been given their due.) The amatriciana pizza ($16), festooned with a sunny-side-up egg, also offered a noticeable nasal kick. And even the pies that aren't armed with chili heat tend to be bracingly fragrant — a potato version ($15), for instance, topped with red onion and gorgonzola cheese and liberally laced with thyme. No hint of starch overload here, despite the potentially smothering presence of the spud.

Herbal perfumes, along with chili heat, are a recurrent theme. We were particularly aware of the oregano breath wafting from a crock of corona beans ($6) simmered with oven-roasted tomatoes. Oregano is the quintessential pizza smell, but I'd never come across corona beans before and, from their pale chubbiness, would have guessed them to be cannellini or flageolet. They'd been cooked just right and still offered nominal tooth resistance before yielding an interior creaminess.

Purely creamy, on the other hand, was the soft polenta ($9). Polenta can be bland, and it is sometimes enlivened by sautéed mushrooms and gorgonzola — and given Ragazza's obvious gusto for big flavors, I wouldn't have been surprised to find those players here. Instead the boost came from a medallion of tomato mascarpone cream, freighted with basil and set atop the polenta like a rosette.

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