The day the music died in my culinary heart was last New Year’s Day when Carlo Middione and his wife, Lisa, quietly closed their southern Italian eatery, Vivande. Not only was Vivande way ahead of its time (serving regional Italian cuisine when many of the city’s current regional Italian chefs and restaurateurs were still wearing pannolini), but it was the one place I could find the kind of Italian food I grew up with – rustic, honest, comforting, and full of love, just like my Sicilian grandfather and mother made it.
Margherita pizza with burrata and egg
Since the first time I dined at the charming Venetian-inspired Pesce on Polk Street, I have been a fan of chef-owner Ruggero Gadaldi. Subsequent visits to his other restaurant just down the street, the larger, dressier Antica Trattoria, were equally enjoyable. Gadaldi, like Middione, is the kind of Italian chef I appreciate most – he cooks the food he grew up with, and he cooks it from the heart. True Italian food is not pretentious or hip, but it is not overcooked spaghetti with gargantuan meatballs a la Buca di Beppo, either.
When Gadaldi, along with partners Adriano Paganini and Deborah Blum, opened Beretta in the Mission district, I was excited, but I wound up disappointed – the hip location was short on comfort and big on fancy cocktails. My visit also happened to be on one of those rare hot summer nights, so being seated by the pizza oven made it hot as Hades. And it was loud – very loud. Looking back, I admit I probably didn’t give the food a fair shake because the hot, sweaty, boisterous atmosphere took center stage.
When Delarosa opened in the old Fuzio space on Chestnut Street serving an almost identical menu, I wasn’t in a hurry to get there, but when Ryan Scott, a talented chef in his own right, told me it was one of his favorite new spots and invited me for lunch, my culinary heart began to sing again ever so slightly.
We started with broccoli rabe and crescenza bruschetta ($7). Broccoli rabe (also known as rapini) is related to turnips and cabbage and has never been very popular in America (in fact, it’s often used as fodder for livestock), likely because of its bitter flavor. It’s never been a favorite of mine, either – until I tried Delarosa’s version with the oozing crescenza, a mild, creamy cheese from northern Italy made of uncooked cow’s milk. Crescenza (also called crescenza stracchino) is best eaten young, and because it doesn’t age well, it’s not widely imported. The best local version I’ve found comes from Sonoma’s Bellwether Farms (you can find it at Cheese Plus on Polk Street). A customer recommended they try the cheese, and on a trip to northern Italy, the Bellwether folks learned the recipe (that customer, incidentally, was Carlo Middione).
Swiss chard is another vegetable that doesn’t top my list, but again Delarosa’s version, served with velvety chickpea puree and pecorino chips ($7), left me wanting more. The eggplant caponatina ($9), a traditional Sicilian appetizer made with eggplant, olive oil, celery, olives, and pine nuts brought me back to my grandfather’s version. As if it couldn’t get better, Delarosa serves the caponatina with buttery burrata.
Growing up, I loved burrata – a mozzarella shell filled with curd and cream that originated in Puglia at the beginning of the 20th century. When it appeared on the menu at A16 for the first time, most people had never heard of it. Since then, burrata has become a staple on appetizer menus, but I still can’t get enough. So of course, the first pizza I tried was the Margherita with burrata ($15), which I had tried on that visit to Beretta and found lackluster. But after eating it at Delarosa, I was more convinced than ever that it was indeed the atmosphere that had colored my experience. The wood-fired crust was cracker thin and perfectly charred, the cornicione (lip or edge) was puffed and bubbled, the tomato sauce was bright but restrained, and the burrata added a moist silkiness that might have caused a lesser crust to go limp (and let’s face it, limp is never good, especially where pizza is concerned).
On my three other visits for this review, I topped the pizza with everything from an over-easy egg to fennel sausage to spicy coppa. You can select your own toppings or go with one of Delarosa’s 12 pies. Ryan’s favorite is the spicy marinara with peperoncini and olives ($10); another dining companion was a fan of the bianca with onions and Parmesan ($8). My vegetarian friend (who was thrilled in general with all the meatless options on the menu) was reluctant to share even a bite of the funghi misti (mushroom medley), tomato, fontina, and thyme ($15). The pizzas all passed my take-home test too: the crust was still crisp several hours later when I ate the leftover slices. Only at night, when Delarosa turns into Beretta Junior (thick and sweaty with a sea of humanity), does the pizza occasionally stumble because the kitchen is pushing things out at an oh-so-Americano, not-at-all-Italiano pace.
On three of my four visits I ordered the Dungeness crab arancini ($10) – rice balls coated in breadcrumbs and fried, another Sicilian classic (I would have ordered them all four times, but they weren’t on the menu the first visit). My grandfather filled his with ground beef, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and peas; at Delarosa they stuff their arancini with a little California crustacean, creating addictively light little globes of deliciousness I’d take over crab cakes any day.
Patine (“little potatoes”) with Gorgonzola was an Italian take on potato chips and dip ($6). A bit rich for a starter, even three of us couldn’t finish it (not if we wanted to eat the six other plates of food coming our way). Fritto misto di pesce ($13), a pile of golden fried seafood, was lighter than you might expect, though the mozzarella in carrozza ($7), basically fried cheese, was too dense and the cheese too chewy. Meatballs in spicy marinara ($6) had the springiness of good angel food cake (which is how I like them) but were still juicy and soft inside.
The spiedini (Italian for skewers of meat or seafood grilled over a flame) fell flat for me as well, perhaps because there were so many more interesting things on the menu. Of the four versions (beef, chicken, pork, scallops), the pork with radicchio, escarole and pancetta ($12) and the scallops with citrus, leeks and potatoes ($15) are the best options.
Pastas were also hit and miss. Pappardelle Napoletana ($10) was homey and satisfying, as was orecchiette with broccoli pesto ($9). Two others were visually unappealing: black olive turned the gnocchi ($11) a dingy grey, while malloreddus with lamb ragu ($9) had wonderful flavor, but the pasta looked like maggots. The rock shrimp with the gnocchi weren’t complementary either because their mineral notes were too similar to the metallic overtones in the olives. I am also a fan of airy pillow gnocchi (more potato than dough), while Delarosa does the doughier, heavier variety.
You can rarely go wrong with a panini ($10), and Delarosa has some tasty combinations, such as goat cheese with roasted peppers, and portobello mushrooms, tomato, roasted onions, and Gruyère (both big hits with the vegetarians at the table); carnivores can go for Italian ham, fontina and mushrooms, or mortadella, salsa Calabrese and provolone.
Most of the desserts ($7) involve gelato and all were good, but I could never pass up the bamboloni caldi – warm, house-made donuts rolled in sugar and served with chocolate sauce, mascarpone cream and raspberry puree for dipping.
The small but well-chosen wine list features 15 by the glass, and it was refreshing to see a beer menu with more options than the signature cocktails ($9), with 15 suds on tap, a dozen or so in bottles, and one in a can (21-A Brew Free or Die! IPA). If you have to get your cocktail on, the Bumble Bee (rum, lime, egg white, honey, and bitters) is refreshing and frighteningly easy to drink (“Are you sure there’s alcohol in there? Let’s have another!”). If you’re tired of Italian, you can go a little French with some Absinthe ($13).
I love the ambiance by day – industrial but open and airy in tones of grey and orange with wooden communal tables and a few seats for two along the windows (as well as some tables outside). The bar is a relaxing spot to wait for a table, but on two of our three lunch visits we didn’t have to wait at all because we were there very early or later in the day. The one time we did wait, at peak lunch hour, it was very brief. Dinner is another story: cramped, stuffy and a bit claustrophobic with long waits (and reservations are only accepted for six or more).
One of the best things about Delarosa is that they serve the same menu from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. and they don’t close in between, which enhances the already neighborhood hangout feel. The wait staff is friendly and efficient, though some servers are more knowledgeable about the food and beverages than others.
Delarosa has risen to the top of my list for casual Italian fare. While no restaurant can ever replace Vivande in my culinary heart, Delarosa has it singing a little louder each time (except when its drowned out by the dinner crowd).
Delarosa: 2175 Chestnut Street (at Pierce), daily 11:30 a.m.–1 a.m., brunch Saturday–Sunday 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m., 415-673-7100, www.delarosa.com
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