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8 Italians

[whitespace] Caffe Ponte Vecchio
David Fortin

It's a Winner: At Caffe Ponte Vecchio it's easy and extremely pleasant to more than fill your stomach for $10.

An examination of the Mission's Italian restaurant situation

By Paul Adams

Lent is well behind us, so pocket your old salt cod and go dine, people. Where, you ask? Well, not counting pizza joints, the Mission has quite a few Italian restaurants, several of which are new and several of which are delicious. In this part of town Italian restaurants are second only to Middle Eastern ones in rate of propagation, it seems. (It's funny how these trends run--right now everybody is serving salmon with lemon-caper sauce.)

The idea of the Italian restaurant is traditionally linked to a certain constellation of ideals: romantic, hearty, unpretentious, simple, passionate, domestic, blue-collar. The Mission's crop doesn't rock that boat very hard. In terms of quality, the bell-curve model applies: there aren't any real stinkers in the bunch, nor are there any intrinsically worth a trip from far away.

Caffe Ponte Vecchio is the clear winner in the price/quality-ratio category. It's a dark, tiny, informal place that until recently was a coffeehouse, and still sort of has that look. The food is conservative in style, freshly made and often staggeringly flavorful. It's easy, and extremely pleasant, to more than fill your stomach for $10 here. The lasagnas in particular are highly recommended. They also have very nice panini and a good lunch deal.

La Traviata has the most romantic setting of the restaurants surveyed: quiet, dimly lit, with opera playing faintly (and many photos of opera personnel on the walls) and courtly wait staff. The quality of the food varies from decent to very good; a recent porcini soup was sublime, but the pastas can be uninteresting. It's a good restaurant for an old-school date or an intense conversation.

La Villa Poppi is a cramped, low-profile restaurant that's been open about a year. Smaller than the average living room, it has a frequently changing menu of perhaps eight specialties, often on the clever side of traditional. These are splendidly fresh and generally well crafted in a kitchen that's so much a part of the room that to call it "open" makes it sound less accessible than it is. Meat entrees are particularly well handled; the gnocchi are light and loosely bound, a hallmark of freshness whose tradeoff is staying power (they dissolve rather rapidly). Prices are higher than at the larger restaurants, but not excessively so, and the food can make it worth it.

At Mangiafuoco, the food can be really, really good, particularly the daily specials and the risotto of the day. This restaurant is a little flashier than most in the survey and as a result is not quite cozy--it comes across as a bit professional, for better or worse. There is a standard menu, with not too many items, all well done and some rather interesting: for example, the mezzaluna filled with squash and cookies. A couple of the dishes, here as elsewhere, fail to avoid the uniformity pitfall: an insufficiently varied dish can become tedious by the 20th bite.

Pastaio has the largest menu, with a hefty variety of "standard" and "special" pastas and numerous secundi piatti in the meat, chicken and seafood categories. The restaurant has a straightforward and untrendy feel, with minimal decoration and a TV over the bar. Dishes aren't stellar or surprising here, but they're satisfying. There's also the option to dine al fresco, which is a definite asset for the restaurant.

May as well include the Rite Spot, even though it's almost more bar than restaurant and has egg rolls on its menu. It does specialize in Italian food, however, and can be quite good and pleasantly atmospheric, although earsplitting when crowded. The food is generally standard, pretty tasty, not too costly, robust, unadorned. A fun place, not a delectable one; a good hangout.

A neighborhood favorite is Valencia Pizza and Pasta, which always has a wait, despite its few frills and uncomfortable chairs. The reason is that it's very inexpensive. All wines are $12, and entrees generally hover between $5 and $8. The pizza is fine; the other dishes are better, but nothing's great. It's another small one, with a friendly, communal atmosphere: many of the patrons know each other and are regulars.

Vineria's name is sort of unfortunate, with its echo, to English ears, of venery, but if you take the plunge you'll find the restaurant's warm red interior cozy and its flavors sometimes exquisite. It's a stylish offshoot of North Beach favorite L'Osteria del Forno, and the menus are very similar, focusing on meat and fish dishes prepared in a subtle Northern Italian style. There is a fair amount of variety, although the menu isn't terribly large. It's a rich meal that they serve, though, unstinting with the olive oil, cream and butter, leaving the diner feeling happy, hedonistic and vaguely transgressive.

As a result of the essentializations about Italian cuisine, it can be uniquely gratifying to a certain facet of what Kierkegaard calls the hankering-of-the-soul. Possibly the best of the Italian-food caches in the Mission is not a restaurant, though: it's Lucca, the lavish fresh-pasta and imported-food shop on 22nd and Valencia. So do yourself some good and enjoy these restaurants. Mamma would approve.

A Bit of Italy

La Traviata
2854 Mission St., 415/282-0500

La Villa Poppi
3234 22nd St., 415/642-5044

Lucca Ravioli Company
1100 Valencia St., 415/647-5581

1001 Guerrero St., 415/206-9881

3182 16th St., 415/255-2440

Rite Spot Cafe
2099 Folsom St., 415/552-6066

Valencia Pizza and Pasta
801 Valencia St., 415/642-1882

3220 16th St., 415/552-3889

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From the May 4-17, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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