Casual Italian from the People Behind Delfina
557 Valencia St. (between 16th and 17th), San Francisco
Open daily from 5:30 p.m. to midnight
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
$1.50 service charged added per person for Healthy SF
Craig Stoll, the man behind the award-winning Delfina in the Mission, has spread his empire to two Delfina Pizzerias and now a wine bar on Valencia Street called Locanda.
Opened just a few months ago, Locanda is a handsome room with a huge bar and open kitchen that serves as a showcase for Chef Anthony Strong, who recently headed Delfina Pizzeria for Stoll. A wine bar would traditionally be heavy on the drinking with just a nod to delicious small bites, but when in California, the food sometimes outshine the wine.
Stoll's pedigree (the dude's a James Beard Award-winner, folks) guarantees that Locanda gathers a good-size crowd every night, and the restaurant was nearly full when I arrived Friday night just a few minutes after the doors opened at 5:30 p.m. (I heard from people eating next to me that there was a line waiting for the restaurant to open before I arrived.)
Since I was eating solo, I sat at the communal table, which I happened to share on this night with several people who definitely was focused on the drinking rather than the food (read: shots). Along with the tables in the front area by the bar, there are also tables in the back facing the open kitchen.
The menu is broken into antipasti, a special section on offal items such as tripe and sweetbreads, pasta, charcoal-grilled items, and side dishes like beans and greens.
The service was professional, smart, and friendly. Everyone I encountered was helpful and welcoming, and my main server offered an excellent recommendation for a red wine, a glass of 2007 Cantina Damiano "Silene" ($11), which is a wine variety known as Cesanese from Lazio, Italy. I loved the medium body of this wine with just a slight smokey taste. It was easy to pair with the food I ordered.
Locanda has several items in the antipasti section known as "pizza bianca" and I thought maybe these were slices of pizzas. But instead, they're flatbreads that are similar to foccacia. Some of the choices are served up almost as a sandwich, but I got one that was served open face like a bruschetta.
The Pizza Bianca with Egg and Salmon Caviar ($9) was colorful and beautiful with the bright intense orange of the salmon caviar offset by the yellow of the egg yolk. The pizza bianco was airy and crusty, and the egg salad and salmon caviar were actually mild in flavor than what I expected. I thought the salmon caviar would be more salty, but they weren't. Another beautiful pizza bianca I saw heading to other tables was a classic fig and prosciutto version.
Always making sure I get my greens, I ordered the Little Gem Salad ($11), which was more than just a salad as it was served with albacore conserva, padron peppers, and thinly sliced fennel. It was so beautiful on the plate, with the crispness from the fresh little gem holding up nicely against the meaty tuna. I loved the addition of the peppers, which were slightly blistered to soften them. (Typically on the menu this salad is made with broccoli rabe, but it looks like Chef Strong was taking advantage of the seasonal availability of the padron peppers, and I'm glad he did.)
I really wanted to try a pasta but also wanted a meat dish. And if I were in Italy with a big group of diners, I probably would have had the pasta as a first course followed my the meat. But eating alone, I wasn't sure if I could eat two big plates. When I asked my server if I could get a half order of the pasta, he said it wouldn't be a problem, so I was happy because that would allow me to try another entree.
So for my pasta, I went with a simple dish, which was the Whole Wheat Spaghetti ($9.50 for half an order/$17 regular price), with nettle, gaeta olive, and pecorino. I've had whole wheat spaghetti with nettle at other restaurants and they were always done so hearty and refreshing. Unfortunately, I have to say that this particular night's spaghetti fell short. The pasta tasted bland and slightly gummy, almost like someone added too much pasta water so all the other ingredients like the cheese didn't seem to cling to the pasta or give the overall dish much flavor or punch.
Side note: The pacing at Locanda is actually very Italian, which means a bit of time between courses allowing the patrons to dine slowly, enjoying the food and the company. When you're dining alone like me, that just means bring a book to kill time between courses.
My main dish from the grilled section of the menu was the Guinea Hen Leg ($21) stuffed with pancetta and served with cicoria, an Italian dandelion. The slices of the leg lay on what tasted like lentils.
I really loved this dish, mostly because the guinea hen was cooked perfectly with the thin skin beautiful crispy and golden. I generally avoid eating poultry skin, which has a lot of fat, but I couldn't resist this skin because of how expertly it was prepared. The jus on the side had a nice flavor and the circoria added a slight bitterness to balance the overall dish.
Locanda has an extensive dessert menu, but I couldn't eat any more after the pasta and guinea hen. But I left pretty satisfied with the variety of foods I ordered, and my nice glass of wine. There was a steady stream of customers coming for a Friday night, but I never felt crowded or overwhelmed. It was a nice dining environment (well, except for the Friday night shooters) with excellent service. The food has a few slight misses, generally sliding toward the milder flavors, but overall it's a quality stream of dishes coming out from the kitchen.
Single guy rating: 4 stars (more than just small bites)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Casual Italian from the People Behind Delfina